Charity launches for-profit law firm to support victims of modern slavery
The government does not support the real cost of help for victims, says ATLEU founder
An anti-trafficking charity has gone to the extraordinary lengths of launching its own for-profit law firm to raise the money it needs to provide support to victims of modern slavery currently being failed by the government.
The numbers of trafficking victims are increasing year on year, with the Home Office estimating there may be as many as 13,000 people held in slavery in the UK. However, the number of lawyers able to support these victims has reduced significantly following cuts to legal aid funding.
Despite the prime minister writing in The Telegraph last year that modern slavery was 'the greatest human rights issue of our time', Victoria Marks, a founder of the Anti Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit, has argued that Theresa May's government is failing victims of trafficking.
'The legal aid system depends on lawyers working with victims for free,' said Marks. 'Legal aid rates are now so low that firms cannot afford to do this. This makes it even harder for victims to overcome the many barriers to justice that the system puts up.'
In one case highlighted by the charity, the Legal Aid Agency argued that an illiterate Indian woman who was held in servitude for over eight years and spoke no English could represent herself in court. The ATLEU invested 40 hours of work, and approximately £6,000 of staff time, to ensure she received legal representation.
In a separate case, ATLEU worked for four years to secure legal aid for a client to pursue a compensa-tion claim after he helped ensure his traffickers were imprisoned. This was after he had worked 60 hours for £10 a week and a packet of tobacco.
The charity says legal aid funding fails to cover the costs of the work required to ensure victims of trafficking get access to the justice. Over half of ATLEU's costs are covered by legal aid funds, which the charity says is not sustainable.
ATLEU has therefore announced it is setting up a separate law firm, Saltworks, to raise the money it needs to provide effective support to victims, with all profits being ploughed back into the charity. It is the second law firm to be owned by a charity in recent months following the launch of Cabot Law, a community initiative by three local law centres.
'We simply can't survive as a charity incurring these huge costs without finding new ways of funding this essential work,' said Marks. 'Many of our test cases would simply not have been brought, let alone won, without our persistence. But we can't survive on that alone. Despite commitment in words, the government simply doesn't support the real cost of the help victims of these awful crimes need to get their lives back.'
The charity, which brought a judicial review in 2016 challenging the adequacy of legal aid provision following changes made by LASPO, has written an open letter to the prime minister, home secretary, and justice secretary asking them to work together to give victims the support they deserve.
Pragna Patel, chair of the ATLEU, called on the government to tender a legal aid contract for trafficking compensation claims so victims can access legal advice throughout the UK; improve the decision-making process for approving legal aid for compensation claims; and provide legal aid for trafficking victims to access compensation from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme.
Statistics derived from the National Referral Mechanism indicate that in 2014, 2,340 potential victims from 96 different countries were referred to it. However, the extent of human trafficking in the UK is likely to be far greater than these statistics would suggest, with the Home Office's Modern Slavery Strategy estimating five times that number.
The Global Slavery Index estimates there are 45.8 million people held in modern slavery around the world. Human trafficking is the fastest growing international crime and the second largest source of illegal income worldwide. In 2014, the International Labour Office estimated the total profit obtained from the use of forced labour to be $150.2bn per year.
John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor of Solicitors Journal