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Asylum seekers' legal reps often underqualified

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Asylum seekers' legal reps often underqualified
17:28 CET+01:00
Sweden's Migration Board (Migrationsverket) has been slammed for "serious deficiencies" in how it assigns public defenders to asylum seekers, thousands of whom are forced to fight deportation battles with representatives who lack law degrees.

"The Migration Board's handling of public defenders isn't legally sound and risks assigning asylum seekers representatives who aren't suited for the task," Yvonne Gustafsson, head of The Swedish Agency for Public Management (Statskontoret), said in a statement.

In a report presented on Wednesday to Migration Minister Tobias Billström, the agency criticized the Migration Board's process for assessing the competence of potential public defenders as being haphazard and uneven.

The report found that of the roughly 1,200 people who currently act as public defenders for asylum seekers, around 200 lack legal degrees.

"The reality is that you or I or the guy who runs the sausage stand down the street can be on the Migration Board's list of public defenders," Peter Ehn, an investigator at the Agency for Public Management told The Local.

Last year, non-lawyers handled 4,300 of the 18,000 asylum cases in which a public defender was assigned by the Migration Board.

"The problem was much bigger than we first realized," said Ehn, who added that his agency's analysis focused more on the process used for assigning public defenders, rather than their individual performance.

"Most of them are trained lawyers who are well-equipped to handle asylum cases," he said.

"But the problem is that the criteria and processes used vary widely from one Migration Board office to another."

While the migration agency has developed guidelines for how public defenders are assigned, it has failed to implement the principles evenly across the entire agency.

"The result is that there is no consistency or unity in assessing the suitability of public defenders who work on asylum cases," said Ehn.

"Even if most representatives are good, even a few cases of unqualified people can have disasterous legal consequences."

A "black list" put together by the Migration Board currently includes 22 names, including a representative who fell asleep during his client's hearing and another who wrote derogatory comments about Muslims on his personal blog.

Attorney Hans Bredberg, who has represented a number of asylum seekers, agreed with the criticism leveled at the Migration Board.

"The Migration Board chooses from a long list and it most often chooses the cheapest legal representative, which is the most effective from its point of view," Bredberg told the TT news agency.

According to the Agency for Public Management, one way to improve the situation would be to have Sweden's Legal Aid Authority (Rättshjälpsmyndigheten) review the credentials of all public defenders who lack a legal degree, rather than have the review carried out by local Migration Board offices.

"We think this would be a relatively quick and easy step to implement," said Ehn.

Migration Board general counsel Mikael Ribbenvik admitted that improvements could be made to how his agency assesses and assigns legal representation to asylum seekers.

"It's not good that the central guidelines aren't followed by different divisions," he told TT.

He explained, however, that privacy concerns raised by the Data Protection Board (Datatinspektionen) have hampered previous efforts by the Migration Board to compile and distribute information about public defenders throughout the agency.

"We'd be happy to have the Legal Aid Authority take over responsibility for checking up on legal representatives; it's a wise approach, but they'll likely run into the same problems with the Date Inspection Board," said Ribbenvik.

David Landes/TT

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