Lawyers Hit Out At Phil Woolas Over Claims Asylum Seeker Charities Are Playing The System

Lawyers hit out at Phil Woolas over claims asylum seeker charities are playing the system

Immigration minister Phil Woolas faced a scathing attack from leading lawyers after suggesting those representing asylum seekers were “playing the system”.

By Tom Whitehead, Home Affairs Editor
Last Updated: 7:33PM GMT 18 Nov 2008

The Law Society accused the minister of running “against the rule of law” and making “unacceptable” comments.

Mr Woolas said there was an “industry out there” with a vested interest in taking asylum claims and appeals forward.

He said lawyers and charities representing asylum seekers are “playing the system” while most of those seeking refuge are just economic migrants.

He made his comments even though some of the charities working with refugees receive public funding to operate.

On average, one in 10 asylum seekers are approved at the first decision but around one in four who then go to appeal are approved.

But Paul Marsh, President of the Law Society, said: “The issue of immigration is one for the politicians to debate, but central to that debate must be the fact that those seeking asylum can do so in a legal system that operates under the rule of law.

“There is no reason why anyone should be denied access to justice on the basis that they are from another country and seeking asylum, which is what the minister seems to suggest.”

“When the Appeal Court has determined that an asylum seeker has a right to remain in this country, it is unacceptable for a Government minister to proclaim through the media that they have no such right.”

Gulay Mehmet, chair of the Law Society's Immigration Law Committee, added: “For the minister to imply there is an asylum “industry” demonstrates a lack of understanding of the difficult and demanding nature of practicing in this area of law, which often involves representing vulnerable clients who have been subjected to abuse and ill treatment by oppressive regimes.

Mr Woolas, who has faced criticism since taking over the post in October, said: “The system is played by migration lawyers and NGOs to the nth degree.

“By giving false hope and by undermining the legal system, (they) actually cause more harm than they do good.” The minister cited a case where an asylum seeker had won the right to stay after going through six layers of appeal.

“That person has no right to be in this country but I'm sure that there is an industry out there [with] a vested interest,” he said in an interview with the Guardian.

Recalling the case of a woman who visited him at his constituency office in Oldham, he said: “One lady showed me the scars on her thighs from where the soldiers had raped her, so I know, but I cannot take a decision on that lady's behalf if I am fogged by cases that are misusing the law.”

There were 23,430 asylum applications last year, excluding dependants. In the same year there were 14,935 appeals of which 23 per cent were allowed – although some appeals will have spilled over from the previous year.

Sophie Brown, chair of the Immigration Law Practitioners Association (Ilpa), said: “Lawyers can only work with the law. To say they are undermining the law is an extraordinary comment to make.”

Shadow Home Secretary, Dominic Grieve, said: “This is the second crass attempt this month by a new minister desperate to look and sound tough.”