"You're under pressure to stop clients from being tortured or killed": an anonymous immigration solicitor speaks

An anonymous immigration solicitor dealing with some of the most challenging legal aid cases speaks out about vicarious trauma from helping torture victims, pressures reaching billable targets and working with the government.
A woman sits in a darkened office and covers her face with her hands.

I always wanted to pursue a career in human rights. I had this amazing sociology teacher in secondary school who was passionate about it.

That got me interested in this area of work and made me want to use my career to do something useful and helpful.

I qualified during a recession, so there weren’t a lot of jobs. I did some volunteering and interning before I began my career as a caseworker at a firm some years ago, before becoming an immigration solicitor.

Working with the government

The nature of the job is that it’s very reactive and unpredictable. This makes it exciting at times, but also quite stressful.

For an asylum claim, you have to meet deadlines set by the Home Office and then just wait for them to respond.

They could invite your client to an interview at any time, or set arbitrary deadlines for you to hand over documents if your client is detained.

Unless you’re only doing straightforward visa applications, it’s incredibly hard to plan your week.

It’s not just with the Home Office. With the courts, you might be working on a first-tier tribunal, with deadlines dependent on when the secretary of state decides to submit a respondent bundle.

Then you have a deadline of when you need to submit evidence by.

Or if your client is suddenly detained, you’ll have to bring an unlawful detention review to get them out.

Now, you can be told your client may be sent to Rwanda, and you have to drop everything.

The way the immigration and human rights sector is being portrayed by the media and government ministers has been really challenging.

It’s made us in the profession come closer together and spurred us on, but it’s also had an impact on our stress levels.

It’s unacceptable that government ministers have called us “activist lawyers” and accused us of abusing the law.

We're not granting anyone asylum: the Home Office is. We're not stopping flights: the judges are. We're using the law in a lawful way to protect our clients.

To have your profession lambasted when all you've been doing is working hard and trying to do something useful, has taken a toll on us.


The Home Office has a backlog of work and there are a lot of delays.

The delays began before the pandemic, but it has made it much worse. It used to be built within immigration laws that asylum claims need to be dealt with within six months. But it’s since been removed.

The delays are so frustrating, especially for the clients. These are people that are living in poor and precarious accommodation

They read the news too. When Rwanda was announced and the first flight was scheduled, I was getting phone calls from all sorts of clients who were really scared.

They call me because, often, I’m the only person they know that’s knowledgeable about the system (unless they are lucky enough to have a support worker).

People get desperate. The delays cause people to develop depression, anxiety disorders, and a lot of the time people will turn to blaming their solicitors.

Clients are trusting us less because of these delays, and there’s nothing we can do. The key to running a good appeal, claim or judicial review, is having a client’s trust, and this completely undermines it.

Legal aid

However, as a firm, we do good, detailed work for our clients. Most of the work we do is legal aid.

As legal aid rates haven’t gone up since the 1990s, we need to take on a lot of work purely for the firm to financially survive.

This means there’s added pressure from the firm to meet billable targets, and we can be pressured to take on private client work to meet these goals. These are usually spousal visas, residential and settlement applications: but these are an entirely different skill set.

The delays impact on this too. We can’t bill for legal aid cases until a specific point, which is typically at the asylum interview.

It can take years to get to that stage. So, you may have racked up a couple of thousand pounds on case but that’s just sitting on file, even though you’ve done the work.

You have to hit your daily time recording targets. They’re not just there for inspiration. You’re expected to meet them, so the firm carries on existing.

If we don’t exist, there’s another big legal aid firm out of the picture.

Coping with trauma

I’ve definitely suffered from vicarious trauma. For me, it came from empathising with people who have been through horrific things and drafting witness statements about their experiences.

The case which triggered me the most was a client who came from a country where the Home Office wouldn’t readily believe allegations of torture.

This client was tortured in the most horrific ways, and I had to write a statement for the Home Office detailing every single act that happened to them.

The statement ended up being 90 pages long, and the barrister I’d instructed said that this was one of the worst cases they had seen in their long career.

I also had a client that ended their life by suicide: that was really tough to deal with.

It's really hard to protect yourself. Especially when you work with a vulnerable client base and you’re under pressure to stop them from being returned to their country where they will be tortured again or even killed.

When I was dealing with the torture case, I became obsessed with it, because I felt like I had to stop this happening to the client again.

I kept having nightmares about it. I’d comfort eat during the day, and I stopped meeting friends because I didn’t feel they could understand what I was going through.

Over time, I felt myself becoming more hardened.

As I’m more senior in my career now, I have more control over what cases I take on. I avoid cases with instances of sexual torture; I really don’t want to do that.

When you’re more junior, some cases can get dumped on you. Especially if someone else goes on leave.

When I was a caseworker, there was no support. Now, the firm has realised that people are burning out and leaving.

Now, they do offer some support, but it’s not extensive enough. Direct support from your manager depends on who your manager is. The culture is really inconsistent.

We’re told how the firm does great work and we challenge the system and hold it to account, but this isn’t reflected in the way staff are treated.

As a legal aid provider, there’s not a lot of money left over to put resources in place to support individual employees.

It’s a consistent complaint that there’s not enough pastoral care. People find the billable targets difficult, people are tired and this is how it’s always been.

I know people who have left the firm because they can’t handle it anymore.

These days, I feel much better than I did. To clear my head, I see friends, go on long walks and do some gardening.

It’s taken me years to learn how to switch off. I try, but I don’t always manage it.

  • As told to Dan Gilbert
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