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Reflecting on KIND in Pro Bono Week 2021

Katie Fennell, KIND UK’s National Coordinator, reflects on her time with KIND, how she arrived here, and the changes to the UK’s immigration landscape that have made our work so vital.

As this week is the 20th anniversary of Pro Bono Week it felt like an opportunity to reflect on KIND UK’s journey; from a trip to the US to a national programme working with over 20 international law firms. But thinking about KIND UK’s inception took me on a trip down memory lane.

Having been an immigration advisor since 2009 I have witnessed the degradation of publicly funded immigration legal advice and representation in England and Wales. I began work at Refugee & Migrant Justice (RMJ), a national charity which provided free legal advice to people with all kinds of immigration and asylum issues. In 2010, unable to weather the transition from legal aid paid at an hourly rate to fixed fees, it went into administration. I got a job at a high street firm with a legal aid contract and tried to help clients who had been left without legal representation following the closure of RMJ. Some colleagues came with me, and others left the sector – worn out by the stress and job insecurity that the collapse in legal aid funding had brought. In 2011 the next national charity providing immigration and asylum legal advice, IAS, went into administration. We picked up boxes of files and tried to help a new group of people left without legal representation. I gained some new colleagues and once more few more left the sector.

Things [were] so bad [in 2012 that] even the plants were leaving

Towards the end of 2012 I sensed a familiar foreboding at the office. When, one day, the office reception was cleared of flower arrangements someone in the lift said, “Things are so bad here even the plants are leaving.” That was my cue to leave, and in January 2013 I began working at Central England Law Centre (CELC). By the end of the month I was collecting boxes of files and trying to help clients once again left without legal representation. More colleagues were lost to the sector. The passage of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) left clients I had happily been signing up for legal aid on Friday 29th March 2013, locked out on Monday, April 1st. They were refugees wanting to reunite with their families, British citizens wanting to bring over spouses, and children and families wanting to regularise their immigration status.

In parallel to the erosion of legal aid was the implementation of ever more-restrictive immigration legislation and policy. Routes to settlement became longer and more complex; financial requirements were prohibitive and prevented families from being together; and the consequences of missing a deadline to renew permission to live in the UK became increasingly severe. The hostile environment policy made things even more fraught – migrants and their families found themselves shut out of a wide variety of essential services. When they most needed legal help in every sector, they instead found a legal advice wasteland.

Many law centres, other advice charities and some great high street firms found ways to keep going. Courageous litigation made exceptional case funding more accessible and brought all immigration and nationality matters back in scope for looked after children. Trusts and foundations pulled together to find ways to breathe life back into the sector and it was from this landscape that KIND UK emerged.

In 2015 Unbound Philanthropy funded a group of advice charity leaders to visit the US to learn more about innovative legal practice in a longstanding environment of inadequate public funding for civil legal matters. During that trip, Sue Bent, the chief executive of CELC met with, Wendy Young, the president of Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) and saw how an extensive network of well-supported pro bono lawyers could provide effective representation to children facing deportation proceedings alone. She returned to the UK and set about creating a programme that could help children who were no longer able to access free legal representation to regularise their immigration or nationality status.

In 2016 we began to set up KIND UK, bringing together a group of highly regarded advice charities[1] under the auspices of KIND. We made our first partnerships with commercial law firms in London. By the beginning of 2017 we had trained pro bono lawyers and they took on their first cases. Over the next year we started to make progress in Birmingham, becoming a part of the city’s burgeoning pro bono scene. In 2018 Just Right Scotland joined the collaboration and developed ways for pro bono to support legal aid cases in Scotland. Last year, Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit became our latest hub, supporting pro bono representation in the North West.

I’m glad we found a way to help the young person who emailed last week to say, “I just wanted to let you know that I’m very appreciative of all your work and support. I feel far less excluded and worried about my future now.”

In the five years since I began working on the programme, I have felt proud of my colleagues who generously share their skills and knowledge; inspired by the pro bono lawyers who give their time and dedication to help children who cannot find help elsewhere and grateful to the firms that enable their lawyers to work with us. I’m glad we found a way to help the young person who emailed last week to say, “I just wanted to let you know that I’m very appreciative of all your work and support. I feel far less excluded and worried about my future now.”

I suppose it might sound strange that my biggest hope is that there will be no need for KIND UK in another 5 years because instead there will be a flourishing, publicly funded legal advice sector – but until then, I’m looking forward to continuing to innovate in the pro bono sector – and continuing to support and represent our clients in their journey to acquiring the citizenship to which they are entitled.

KIND by the numbers

Since we began, KIND UK has helped more than 1,890 individuals, taking on 703 cases. We’ve achieved a 99% success rate taking cases to the Home Office, and so far we’ve obtained citizenship or leave to remain for 150 individuals. Cases can take years to resolve.

Eight supervisors and three paralegals provide support and supervision to pro bono lawyers working on KIND cases. We’ve grown by 30% in 2020-21 in response to demand.

At least 243 individual lawyers have worked on at least one case for us. Our most prolific pro bono lawyer has taken on 16 cases over the last three years. We’ve worked with 24 firms and 28 offices over our history.

Our current waiting list is over 200 individuals – the scale of the problem we’re tackling is huge, and growing. If you work for or represent a firm looking to do pro bono work, get in touch.

[1] Coram Children’s Legal Centre, Migrant & Refugee Children’s Legal Unit & Central England Law Centre.