A law centre charity was forced to self-fund its challenges to the deportation of three rough sleepers due to "severe failings" that led to a delay in funding from the Legal Aid Agency (LAA), an investigation from the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman has found.
The Ombudsman said the failings resulted in one government body blocking individuals from challenging the decisions of another.
In 2017, a law centre represented three EU citizens living in the UK who the Home Office had decided should be deported after they were found sleeping rough.
The centre argued that the Home Office policy behind these decisions was unlawful and was being used to systematically identify and deport EU citizens.
It requested reviews of these decisions and applied to the Legal Aid Agency for funding to represent its clients. However, the agency delayed responding to the funding applications, leaving the centre and its clients in limbo, the Ombudsman found.
The centre had to self-fund the legal challenges against the deportation orders, which was a financial risk for the centre, according to the report.
The centre eventually secured the funding and successfully appealed the Home Office decisions, but not before one of its clients was detained, and another had their passport removed.
One client was left waiting over three months to get funding. If the law centre had waited for the funds before starting legal action, it would likely have missed the deadline to challenge the deportation order.
The LAA could only provide funding from the date it had decided to grant the aid. This meant that, although the individuals were entitled to it, the agency would not backdate the funding to cover the full costs of their legal challenges.
The centre couldn't recoup costs to cover work carried out at the beginning of the legal process.
The agency's delays and initial decision to decline legal aid to two of the clients had a profound impact on these individuals' lives and their ability to challenge the Home Office decisions, the report found.
Julie Bishop, Director of the Law Centres Network, welcomed the Ombudsman's finding of maladministration by the LAA.
She claimed that this was not an isolated incident. "Many Law Centres and other legal aid providers face delayed decisions by LAA," she said.
Ms Bishop added: "In some cases, we as a membership body are called upon to help get the Law Centre clarity with mere hours before a case is due to be heard in court.
“In our experience, these problems stem from a working culture within the LAA, and has nothing to do with protecting the public purse. In effect, it restricts access to legal aid, making it harder for lawyers to launch legal action with confidence and for people to resolve their legal problems. The result is that it piles pressure on legal aid providers. All this runs against the very purpose of the Legal Aid Agency. We call on them to fix it now."
Rob Behrens, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, said access to justice through legal representation was a "fundamental right".
Mr Behrens said: "Whatever their circumstances, individuals must be able to hold public bodies to account, challenge unfair processes, and defend their human rights through the justice system.
"In this case, service failings essentially resulted in one government body blocking individuals from challenging the decisions of another. This sets a dangerous precedent and shows how vulnerable citizens' rights can be when faced with ineffective and discriminatory government policies.”
He added: "Government departments and agencies must make sure that nobody is unfairly disadvantaged by their processes. This is particularly pertinent now as the pandemic has exacerbated existing societal inequalities, which means more people are at risk of falling foul of government service failings."
A Legal Aid Agency spokesperson said: "We've made significant improvements to speed up the system and payments can now be backdated to ensure claimants get the support they need.
"We have noted the Ombudsman's report and will carefully consider its findings."