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Lawyers' group demands better legal protection for asylum seekers: "Everyone should be equal before the law"

Last year's changes to Finland's system of providing legal assistance to asylum seekers have undermined their level of legal protection, fostering incorrect asylum decisions, says the Finnish Bar Association, a group of over 20,000 attorneys-at-law.

Turvapaikanhakijoita Evitskogin vastaanottokeskuksessa Kirkkonummella 2. helmikuuta 2016.
Asylum seekers in a Kirkkonummi reception centre. Image: Vesa Moilanen / Lehtikuva

The Finnish Bar Association demands that Finland take steps to improve the legal protection of asylum seekers. Last autumn the government put restrictions on asylum seeker access to legal assistance. The lawyers' group resisted this change already in its planning stage.

"The consequences we suspected when we submitted our initial statement have unfortunately come to fruition. These changes should never have been made," says the association's president, Jarkko Ruohola.

He says the reform has led to asylum seekers no longer being treated equally.

"It is a basic right that all people should be equal before the law, regardless of nationality or place of residence. Asylum seekers are now on a different footing than other people involved in legal proceedings. The Finnish Bar Association doesn't believe that this is the way things should be," Ruohola says.

Stripping legal protection

Last year's change affected asylum seeker access to legal protection in three ways.

First, Finnish Immigration Service meetings with asylum seekers are now usually held without a legal representative representing the interests of the asylum seeker, except in extraordinary situations. The Bar Association says this has led to faulty interviews.

"The initial interview is a very important way of gathering information. It is important for both Finland and the asylum applicant that the meeting successfully compiles enough of the appropriate data. This process can be aided by an expert legal assistant," says Ruohola.

The second change the reform introduced was a cut in the appeals time allotted to asylum decisions from 30 days to 21.

"The faster an appeal has to be registered, the greater risk of an argument that hasn't been thought through carefully.  If and when a dispute is bad, it not only takes up more of the courts' time but also jeopardizes the justice of the final result," the lawyer's association leader says.

The third change that was made was a decrease in the legal assistant's compensation. Legal help during an appeals case, for example, used to be invoiced by the hour, but now the lawyers that assist the asylum seekers receive a flat sum. This does not give attorneys an incentive to invest much time in the case.

"The situation of each asylum seeker is different. Sometimes things take longer, so a flat salary is not fair."

Misguided decisions result

The newspaper Helsingin Sanomat says this has led to scenarios in which the appointed legal representative isn't even interested in meeting with a potential asylum seeker client. Ruohola says he doubts that members of his organisation engage in this, but argues that low compensation hardly motivates people to do more than the bare minimum.

He maintains that a system like this will inevitably result in misguided asylum decisions, from both parties' point of view.

Asianajaliiton puheenjohtaja Jarkko Ruohola
Jarkko Ruohola Image: Ari Mölsä / Yle

The Ministry of Justice justified the reform by saying that it was designed to speed up the legal process and make the money and time spent on asylum applications more efficient.

"We agree that the asylum process should be sped up. They have likely achieved some savings, but on the other hand, there are now added expenses like appeals processing taking so much longer," Ruohola says.

HS reports that the Ministry of Justice will evaluate the changes that have occurred due to the legal assistance reform, but the Bar Association is not optimistic.

"We have discussed this matter several times with the Ministry this spring. There are no realistic possibilities on the horizon for a change," says Ruohola.

Yle was unable to reach Justice Minister Antti Häkkänen for comment.

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