We moved fully to Devon from London in 2014 for an affordable family house and space to grow fruit and vegetables. A fairly reliable train service from Exeter to London permits me to maintain my practice in London although I do all my preparation and non-court work from home. Devon is good for many things but specialist pro bono advice centres are few and far between, in particular those offering refugee and immigration law. It is a large county with a very small number of practitioners doing immigration work. This despite a well evidenced need.

I soon found myself being asked to speak as a refugee and immigration specialist about the current refugee situation to all sorts of local groups and organisations including Amnesty International, Trill Farm, and the Bridport Arts Centre. I met a number of individuals and groups who were assisting refugees in a variety ways from one young woman who took a camper van to the Jungle in Calais to set up a women’s reception centre, to fundraising initiatives on the beach at Lyme Regis, to collections of clothes that were being driven out by a well-coordinated group of retired people.

Significantly I also met Exeter-based Refugee Support Devon (RSD) which does valuable work in helping the growing number of asylum seekers and refugees in Devon. RSD provides an information and enquiry service, support for people who want to claim asylum, and practical support to help people obtain vital services. It offers an emergency fund for financial assistance, provides English language classes, helps with finding employment and has an allotment. In short, it aims to provide a holistic service. What was clear, however, from my initial meeting with Nelida Montes de Oca of RSD was the real need for specialist immigration and refugee law advice. None of the volunteers or people working for RSD have legal training and therefore specific advice to individual clients on their legal situation is beyond their remit. Immigration and refugee law is highly complex involving international, European and domestic law, policy and secondary legislation. There are frequent changes in the law which frankly makes it a legal minefield for anyone unless they are a specialist in the area.

How to set it up?

At present there is no law centre in the Exeter area and no other source of specialist immigration advice in the vicinity without having to pay privately. There is no law firm in Exeter with a legal aid contract for immigration. The nearest law centres are at Plymouth and Bristol and inevitably capacity in those places is limited even if clients were able to travel there to seek advice. Privately paid legal advice is obviously beyond the financial means of many of those seeking immigration law advice.

It seemed clear that ideally there should be a law centre for Exeter. But with my experience as a volunteer at the Islington Law Centre, work as a reviewer for the Bar Pro Bono Unit and conversations with those in the know, I knew that realistically it would be far from straightforward setting up something from scratch. Who would be the partner organisations? Who would provide funding; which law firms would send volunteers to give advice; and were there enough commercial firms in Exeter to financially support the project? I had also, however, seen an impressive immigration clinic run at the University of Miami where I am a Visiting Professor. This seemed to me to be perhaps an easier way of providing a service at least in the first instance, although again I did not hold my breath. I had a contact in the form of Professor Helena Wray who had fairly recently moved from Middlesex University in London to the University of Exeter as an Associate Professor in Migration Law. I got in touch.

Adapting an existing model

From there things in fact moved more quickly than I imagined possible thanks to the team at the University of Exeter headed up by Wray. It turned out that the University already had an established legal clinical programme run by the very capable Tia Matt, a graduate from Washington University in the US with considerable experience from that jurisdiction. Wray elicited her support together with a small working group. There was a great sense of ‘can do’ from then on. As the University already had a physical space for the clinic, and the necessary infrastructure of computers and telephones, part of the not inconsiderable start-up cost was already covered. It was then a question of brain storming to examine how other university clinical programmes and law centres operated in providing specialist immigration advice, and working out what was feasible through a university clinical programme. Tricky issues such as legal scope of the clinic, turnaround times for advice, whether it would be possible to offer representation at hearings (it is not), the referral mechanism, interpretation for non-English speakers, training of students, supervision, and critically guaranteeing the quality of the advice to be offered all had to be worked through.

"Devon is good for many things but specialist pro bono advice centres are few and far between, in particular those offering refugee and immigration law... despite a well evidenced need"

The Clinic is staffed by law student volunteers from University of Exeter who are supervised by qualified solicitors and barristers. The Clinic will be a free (means-tested) service offered after completion of an application form. The service will include an in-person meeting to take detailed instructions and will provide limited advice and information, signposting, and assistance with completing forms. It aims to partially fill the gap caused by recent cuts to the scope of legal aid in immigration matters. Types of cases will include Article 8 ECHR family and private life claims, refugee family reunion, registration of children as British citizens, EU family rights, and statelessness. It is anticipated that the clinic will remain open during the academic holidays but with reduced capacity. The next stage is to examine whether funding can be applied for to cover the cost of a part-time solicitor to work at the clinic.

Live issues: a call for help

A live issue for the clinic is the insufficient number of qualified immigration lawyers in the area available to act as supervisors and reviewers to ensure that all advice that is sent out is accurate, comprehensive and consistent with best practice. With only one firm – Stephens Scown and one other solicitor John Atkins – offering (private) immigration advice in Exeter and few Exeter based barristers specialising in the area there is a limited pool from which to draw locally. To this end some creative thinking has been necessary and the clinic is currently looking for practitioners (solicitors and barristers) with immigration law expertise who would be able to undertake to review papers and supervise students in drafting advice. Such individuals would not need to be Devon based as the papers can be scanned and the work done remotely.

The Clinic aims to start small and the working group is fully aware of the importance of managing expectations and ensuring the initial experience is entirely positive for all – clients, students and supervisors alike.

Based upon the initial flurry of enquiries, the clinic is going to provide a much needed service to a vulnerable community in this area. There was considerable interest already expressed in the community at the launch at Exeter University sponsored by Matrix on 7 December 2017. For information and referrals contact immigrationclinic@exeter.ac.uk. Any qualified solicitor or barrister with immigration law experience who is interested in assisting in the project should also get in touch on the same email.

Contributor Samantha Knights QC is a barrister at Matrix and Visiting Professor at Miami University