The Finnish system of providing legal aid to asylum seekers has been and remains riddled with serious problems, according to an investigation by Helsingin Sanomat.
The newspaper reports that the problems have exacerbated following the introduction of legislative revisions that were designed to expedite the appeals process but that have enabled private legal aid lawyers to benefit from state funding and, effectively, con asylum seekers.
“We used to have a good system for providing legal aid to asylum seekers. It was taken down in a panic after lots of applicants arrived,” Ville Punto, a lawyer specialising in immigration issues and the chairperson of the expert group on administrative law at the Finnish Bar Association, told Helsingin Sanomat on Saturday.
Punto revealed that he has seen numerous appeals that fail to elaborate on the situation of the appellant and simply cite sections of the legislation and public reports on the conditions in the appellant’s country of origin.
“There’s a lot of gobbledygook without a single comment on the grounds for the decision of Migri,” he said.
The problems identified in the investigation include lawyers attending asylum interviews while intoxicated, neglecting to respond to e-mails and phone calls from their clients, and attempting to collect illegal charges from their clients.
Helsingin Sanomat writes that it is aware of more than ten cases in which the legal protection of an asylum seeker has been compromised by the disregard of legal aid lawyers.
The Finnish government decided in the second half of last year to shorten the appeal period for unsuccessful asylum seekers and introduce restrictions to the use of legal counsels in the first asylum interview.
Jarkko Ruohola, the president of the Finnish Bar Association, estimated that the absence of experienced legal counsels from asylum interviews partly in part why over a third of the negative asylum decisions processed this year by administrative courts have been overturned.
“The number of cases sent back is way too high. This isn’t the way it should be,” he commented to Helsingin Sanomat.
Anna-Maja Henriksson, the chairperson of the Swedish People’s Party and a former Minister of Justice, similarly estimates that the legislative reform has undermined the legal protection of asylum seekersin Finland.
“Prohibiting the Refugee Advice Centre and others with expertise in asylum issues from counselling asylum seekers during the first asylum interview was a big mistake,” she slams in a press release from the Swedish People’s Party.
“The government’s reform has basically led to the misuse of tax money, as the money is being put into the pockets of lawyers who take advantage of people in need without being genuinely interested in doing their job as well as possible. The current system will ultimately undermine the credibility of our rule-of-law state,” warns Henriksson.
She urges the government to take swift action and rectify its mistake.
“It is clear in hindsight that the revisions were reckless and have resulted exactly in what I and the [Swedish People’s Party] warned about in 2016. The intention at the time was to speed up the process, but it is becoming increasingly obvious that the objective was to remove people from the country quicker,” she says.
Helsingin Sanomat reminded that the reform stirred up concerns among several legal and human rights experts after it was announced in early 2016. The Finnish Bar Association, Parliamentary Ombudsman, Parliament’s Constitutional Law Committee and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), for instance, expressed their concern about the consequent erosion of the legal protection of asylum seekers in the country.
The Ministry of Justice is presently considering conducting a study of the effects of the revisions, writes Helsingin Sanomat.
Aleksi Teivainen – HT
Photo: Martti Kainulainen – Lehtikuva