These times are difficult and uncertain. It’s not often that asylum lawyers and the Home Office agree, but I can’t imagine any dispute from either side on this point. Businesses have closed, the streets are deserted, and much of society has ground to a halt. Yet, despite the unprecedented disruption, new arrivals continue to enter the UK and asylum claims are still being lodged and so, for asylum lawyers, the show must go on!
Like every other area of law, we have faced technical, procedural and logistical hurdles and have had to adapt accordingly. Giving credit where it’s due, the Home Office has employed certain measures to mitigate some of the difficulties caused by lockdown. For example, the lodging of fresh claims by post or email is a welcome (and overdue) change, and the acceptance of unsigned questionnaires is a commonsense approach that has made work (slightly) easier.
However, whilst said measures are worthy of praise, they are futile if lawyers cannot start working for the client, and they cannot do this without having their mandates accepted.
At the beginning of lockdown, the Home Office issued directions to agents advising that unsigned mandates will be accepted – a logical approach given our inability to meet with clients face to face. This approach also stands to reason, as solicitors are under a strict duty to act honestly and with integrity – thus the lodging of an unsigned mandate without authorisation or instruction to do so is highly unlikely.
After one week, however, in response to one of our unsigned mandates, we were advised of a “policy change”, meaning that unsigned mandates were no longer acceptable. For future reference, we requested a copy of said policy, and were then advised that the shift was internal and verbal – thereby leaving solicitors in the dark on this issue.
Following the theme of the lockdown, we adapted and implemented a new approach – this time asking clients to write by hand a mandate which was signed, dated, and provided for our explicit instruction. The client would then send this to us securely, and we would forward the same on with our letter of instruction. Our creativity was subsequently rewarded for a brief period as these mandates were accepted and we were able to carry on our work.
Perhaps inevitably however, once again in response to a particular client rather than a policy announcement, we were advised that our handwritten mandates were unacceptable – as they now require “to be on letterheaded paper”.
The last announcement from the Home Office on mandates during COVID-19 was on 23 March. Since then, there has been an overwhelming lack of consistency and clarity on this issue – and mandate acceptance now seems to depend on which caseworker opens the email. Without recognised representation, asylum-seekers will be sent all Home Office directions, and given that the majority do not speak English, their claims will undoubtedly suffer as a result.
Therefore, for asylum-seekers and their lawyers, an urgent policy announcement is required on this issue – one which is unambiguous, fair, commonsense, and capable of lasting more than a week.
Kyle Dalziel, trainee solicitor, Loughran & Co Solicitors
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