St Augustine's, a well-loved community centre in Halifax, has added immigration law advice to the wide range of services it offers new arrivals to the UK.
'We've been able to support some of the most vulnerable in our community and help them out of destitution.' - Becky Hellewell
Her colleague Nikki Clarke adds: 'We have been able to bring people out of really quite precarious situations.'
Becky and Nikki are OISC-registered immigration advisers at St Augustine's, having received training, support and supervision under Refugee Action's Frontline Immigration Advice Project (FIAP). As the Head of Support and Immigration Worker, respectively, they are part of the 12-strong staff team at this busy and thriving community centre in Halifax, which first opened its doors in 1968.
Since the early 2000s, when Calderdale became a dispersal area for asylum-seekers, St Augustine's has increasingly provided services for new arrivals to the UK.
'A warm welcome and safe space to people seeking support and sanctuary; together we share food, stories, and build relationships.' - St Augustine's
St Augustine's is a first point of contact for people when they first arrive, and aims to support them until they have obtained their immigration status, and are ready to move on with their lives.
At the time, there were no legal aid specialist immigration solicitors or immigration advisers in Calderdale. 'We were having to send people to advisers in Leeds, Bradford, Rotherham. Those are long distances for someone with such limited funds. It was a big barrier. We were seeing people whose appeal rights were exhausted and didn't really have any way of helping. It was really disheartening not to be able to find a way forward for them.'
Becky was the first to complete FIAP training at St Augustine's, taking her OISC exams in July 2017. Since then, it has added in-house immigration advice, to its host of services, which include help accessing housing and health services, community lunches, a nursery, English language classes, gardening and yoga.
'People can now access free immigration law advice in Halifax, which didn't exist before. It has opened doors for people who would have struggled otherwise and had to travel really far to access any legal service. It is also a great opportunity for St Augustine's, as we are working with this community anyway.' - Nikki
She describes the centre as 'a unique place'; which commands great loyalty and affection from the local community and the people it serves. Nikki first came across St Augustine's when her parents began hosting its refugees in the family home; she started volunteering at the centre soon after. Joining the staff and then qualifying as an immigration adviser was the next logical step, although adds that OISC training is a significant undertaking. She says: 'I like studying, but it's a big commitment. It's as hard as doing a degree, but it just makes so much sense to do it.'
Nikki followed suit after Becky, becoming OISC accredited in July 2018; another staff member, plus a regular St Augustine's volunteer have also completed the FIAP training, meaning the centre now has four OISC-accredited advisers.
In 2018, local provision was increased further with the opening of a specialist immigration legal aid firm in Halifax, Fisher Stone Solicitors. Fisher Stone Solicitors founder, Karin Oliver, previously volunteered at St Augustine's, as did one of its case workers Alice Garrod. Unsurprisingly, the firm has forged a strong collaborative working relationship with the centre.
'Having St Augustine's is so helpful for us. We are always saying how lucky we are to have them.' - Alice
They have developed a model of working which benefits both organisations, but the main beneficiaries are the clients. Referrals go both ways, with clients moving between the two, depending on what they need at the time.
If someone comes to St Augustine's needing to make an asylum claim, they will often be referred to Fisher Stone Solicitors, who can act under legal aid. Work not covered by legal aid, such as family reunion, applications for a change of conditions to give access to essential state benefits, will be done by St Augustine's immigration advisers.
Nikki says fresh claim work is 'very complex and time-consuming', both for the individual and their adviser. But adds: 'It is my favourite part of the work, as you really get to know people. We spend an intensive period working with someone, to understand what happened with their earlier claim and whether they have prospects of making a fresh claim. You are trying to help them think about all the evidence they might have available and taking detailed instructions.'
Alice agrees the sheer volume of work involved means fresh claims are difficult for private law firms to take on. 'Many people never get the chance to make another application. It can take them years to find someone to take on their claim, so they are just left floating around, waiting for someone to help them.' The longer people are in legal limbo, the less likely they will ever get out of it. They become destitute, which brings mental and physical health problems, they lose papers, and can become completely isolated from society.
After training, supervision and specialist support from RA, St Augustine's is able to make applications for exceptional case funding from the Legal Aid Agency, a complex and time-consuming process which often makes it unviable for private firms. Once funding is in place, Fisher Stone can take on the case.
Alice says: 'They are good at getting people organised with their documentation.' She cites a recent example where, with guidance from Alice, Nikki worked with a client to gather information and identify a country expert who would be willing to prepare a report. Alice says: 'The fact she was able to do all of this groundwork, and find an expert willing to be involved makes it much more likely we can take the case.'
'We can spend that time with people. St Augustine's real focus is quality not quantity, which is really challenging for the private legal aid sector, who often don't have that time.' - Nikki
Becky adds: 'It all links together. I really like the holistic nature of how the legal side of things fits in with St Augustine's other services. It's amazing having immigration advice alongside other work we do. They really complement each other.'
'We were able to go at our own pace.' - Becky
St Augustine's signed up for Refugee Action's Frontline Immigration Advice Project in 2016, and gained its first OISC adviser, Becky Hellewell, in 2017. The organisation itself became OISC registered in February 2020.
Becky says being able to progress in stages was vital for a small organisation with no experience of immigration law.
'Navigating all the immigration rules was new to us; learning the terminology; and how to use it in drafting client care letters and representation; as well as understanding how to navigate what you're looking for. It was quite a lot, but we were able to go at our own pace. I did the training and sat the OISC exams, but we as an organisation were not registered at the time. We didn't want to be. We didn't have the capacity to do that. It would have been too much. Until St Augustine's was ready for registration, Becky and her adviser colleagues were supervised by RA legal officer James Conyers.
'We learned along the way from Refugee Action's experience and expertise.' - Becky
Nikki Clarke adds: 'If I had an issue or query, James was always there for a phone call or email. He's still available now.'