A charity that provides legal representation for people who have been treated unfairly by public bodies was left £50,000 out of pocket after it was incorrectly unable to access legal aid.
The Law Centre charity represented three EU citizens living in the UK who the Home Office had decided should be deported after they were found sleeping rough in 2017.
The charity argued that the Home Office policy behind these decisions was unlawful and was being used to systematically identify and deport EU citizens.
It requested a review of each decision and applied to the Legal Aid Agency for funding so it could represent its clients.
But the agency delayed responding to the funding applications, which left the charity having to self-fund the legal challenges at its own financial risk.
All three decisions were later found to be unlawful.
An investigation by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman found that the agency’s delays and initial decision to decline legal aid to two of the clients had a profound impact on these individuals’ lives and their ability to challenge the Home Office decisions.
Despite successfully appealing each decision, the agency could only provide funding from the date it had decided to grant the aid and would not backdate the funding to cover the full costs of their legal challenges.
This meant that the charity could not recoup the costs to cover the work it carried out at the beginning of the legal process, leaving it £50,000 out of pocket.
Julie Bishop, director of the Law Centres Network, said many legal aid providers faced delays by the LAA and it was not an isolated incident.
“In our experience, these problems stem from a working culture within the LAA, and have nothing to do with protecting the public purse,” she said.
“In effect, it restricts access to legal aid, making it harder for lawyers to launch legal action with confidence and for people to resolve their legal problems.
“The result is that it piles pressure on legal aid providers."
She said all of that "runs against the very purpose of the LAA" and called on the agency to fix the issues.
The ombudsman’s investigation also found that the agency’s decision-making processes were not always fair on applicants, its delays were unreasonable and that these failings placed vulnerable people in an even more precarious situation.
Ombudsman Rob Behrens said government departments and agencies must make sure that nobody was unfairly disadvantaged by their processes.
“Access to justice through legal representation is a fundamental right,” he said.
“Whatever their circumstances, individuals must be able to hold public bodies to account, challenge unfair processes, and defend their human rights through the justice system.
“In this case, service failings essentially resulted in one government body blocking individuals from challenging the decisions of another. This sets a dangerous precedent and shows how vulnerable citizens’ rights can be when faced with ineffective and discriminatory government policies,” he said.
Behrens recommended that the agency apologise to the Law Centre, pay the costs the charity was unable to recoup because of its failings and review its processes to make sure they provide fair outcomes for all.
A Legal Aid Agency spokesperson said: “We’ve made significant improvements to speed up the system and payments can now be backdated to ensure claimants get the support they need.
“We have noted the ombudsman’s report and will carefully consider its findings.”