10 Mar 2017
With the University of Bedfordshire's main campus based in the centre of Luton, a town that is highly demographically diverse, and that suffers disproportionate levels of deprivation to other parts of the East of England, they are deeply conscious of their role in fostering positive engagement with their local community. The Refugee Legal Assistance Project (RLAP) was conceived in response to the cuts to legal aid funding that excluded family reunion cases from publicly funded legal aid.
Family reunion applications are complex for individuals who have no legal education and limited or no command of the English language. Most refugees struggle to afford the high fees which are typically charged by solicitors for this type of application. The prospect of reuniting with their family becomes impossible for many refugees.
RLAP seeks to redress this problem through provision of legal aid surgeries for refugees seeking to bring their families to Britain. Students and graduate volunteers, working under the supervision of qualified practitioners, provide assistance to refugees from the initial stages of their application, assessing the merits of their case, guiding the clients on the evidence required to support their application, and assisting them in completing the complex UKVI forms and navigating the online application system. The project also benefits from the assistance of a qualified barrister, provided on a pro-bono basis.
RLAP is the first university-based clinical legal education project of its kind in the UK. Following a small-scale pilot programme which took place in the 2013-2014 academic year, the RLAP in its present form commenced in October 2014 with 12 student and graduate volunteers.
In the 2015-16 academic year the student volunteers have been extended to include postgraduate students from the Department of Social Work. These students were brought in with the aim of providing more rounded support to the refugees whilst at the same time allowing the students to experience working in an inter-professional setting, as they are likely to do once in practice.
RLAP filled a significant gap caused by the reductions to legal aid. It provides support to charities operating in the field that may not have the legal knowledge or resources to assist with the Family Reunion application process. To date the initiative has provided family reunion support to more than 60 individuals. Clients have come from a variety of countries, including Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Gambia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan, Uganda, Sri Lanka, Ghana, Zimbabwe and Iran.
In addition, the project is linked to two research projects: one concerning Access to Justice in the Asylum Process in the UK and the other, funded by the Legal Education Research Network (LERN), assessing the effectiveness of methods designed to enhance the reflection of students on their professional practice in clinical legal education.
Finally, it has contributed to the profile of the university, winning the Lord Lieutenant of Bedfordshire’s Community Engagement Award in June 2015 and achieving regional media coverage with ITV East Anglia.
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