The tragic demise of Refugee and Migrant Justice, formerly known as the Refugee Legal Centre, leaves a gaping and unfillable void in the immigration sector. With its higher than average success rate and top notch training and nurturing programme for asylum lawyers, it is simply irreplaceable.
What happened? I start by saying I have no insider information.
The managers claim it was a cash flow problem caused by the delayed payment system of the Legal Services Commission, introduced to massage the LSC’s own books and condemned by the National Audit Office. For a charity with no facility to borrow and no private work with which to cross subsidise — and therefore no way to bridge the gap between incurring the costs and receiving the payment — cash flow no doubt was the immediate trigger for the collapse.
Many staff, and certainly the trade union, blame the managers, believing it to be a case of financial incompetence. The same staff were very resistant to attempts to streamline the business or to do more billable hours, though, and on their own analysis must therefore logically share the blame.
Both explanations seem incomplete and to my mind cheapen the death of RLC, as I still prefer to think of it. I suspect what really happened was far more fundamental and far more damning for the legal aid system that was imposed by the last Government.
RLC was, in common with all immigration legal aid providers, paid a fixed fee for each case it undertook. The same funding applied to for-profit and not-for-profit organisations. Under such a system it is obvious that an organisation will profit, in the sense of generating excess cash, if it can do as little work as possible on each case, thereby incurring less staffing costs in ‘processing’ the client (I am unwilling to dignify the work done by the large, private, for-profit factory firms that do well from this system with the word ‘represent’). The firms that play the legal aid system well pocket plenty of government cash for their proprietors, but routinely do a terrible job on their client’s cases.
RLC staff were too well trained. They were too committed to their clients. They were not willing to take shortcuts. They were not willing to do the minimum, or less than the minimum. In short, they did too much work on each case. The organisation was doomed by its excellence.
I only wish that this was the message that had been sent by the trustees and managers when the ship went down, rather than the tawdry moans about cash flow. It certainly made the managers sound incompetent, even if this was not true. Worst of all, it gave the Government an easy way out, by pointing out that everyone else was coping.
Barry Stoyle, the founder and long serving Chief Executive of RLC, was unpopular with staff by the time he seems to have been ditched by the RLC trustees in 2007 or so. He preferred a one-office policy and wanted to keep the organisation small. Everyone else, notably IAS, was expanding at the time, and the LSC was merrily dishing out legal aid contracts like there was no tomorrow. Having negotiated the original funding that freed RLC from the imploding and now defunct UKIAS, he was always worried about long term funding. How right he was, all along. All is forgiven, Barry.