In mid-1995 the Ministry of Justice in the UK needed a computerised system, which would focus on being able to process and manage the cases of asylum seekers efficiently.
The Refugee Legal Centre, which was a department within the Home Office based in London, had purchased a system, which did not work.
Applied Network Solutions, a software company headed by David Johnston (now also a Trustee of AMERA International), was selected to come in and build a system quickly, which would match the requirements of the 250 caseworkers employed by the Refugee Legal Centre.
Applied Network Solutions completed the initial system called RIPS (Refugee Information Processing System), which went live at the end of 1995. RIPS managed all asylum seekers in detention (held in detention centres or prisons) as well as those living in the community in the UK.
Not long after this, the Ministry of Justice ‘outsourced’ the Refugee Legal Centre. The Refugee Legal Centre became a company financially independent from the Home Office, which had to be self-funded with revenue paid by the Legal Services Commission (LSC) based on the nature and type of cases completed.
To supplement its income the Refugee Legal Centre was permitted to undertake litigation cases as well, so RIPS was modified to take litigation cases in addition to legal help and asylum cases.
With budgets tightened, the Ministry of Justice published new strategies for paying the caseworkers undertaking legal aid. These were far more complicated with different rates of pay applicable based on six minute units of work and the type of casework undertaken. RIPS was modified to cater for these changes and to automate the electronic submission of claims to the LSC.
In 1998 the government decided that asylum seekers should be able to get legal aid wherever they had settled in the country. RIPS was distributed to over 20 offices opened in all parts of the country with master databases of all regional records being carefully stored in a number of ‘safe’ locations. This required further amendments to RIPS for reporting at team, office and regional level.
In 1999 RIPS was adjusted to ensure that caseworkers accounted fully for their time at work. This allowed management to identify training needs and encouraged improved working practices to increase productivity and improve case outcomes.
In 2000 the Audit Commission sent its auditors to examine the operation of RIPS with the objective of saving the government money. More efficient ‘rounding’ was introduced so that caseworkers only got paid for complete units of work ( i.e. complete units of six minutes ) with rounding down to the nearest unit. This reduced the revenue available to the Refugee Legal Centre greatly, so they were forced to look for alternative funding streams.
The Refugee Legal Centre came up with an interpreter booking service, which helped both the caseworkers and other government departments, including the police and other departments. This additional revenue plugged the gap caused by the downward ‘rounding’ of caseworker fees and was very successful. RIPS included the interpreter booking module as part of the system.
In 2006 the Refugee Legal Centre was renamed Refugee and Migrant Justice (RMJ).
In 2007 the government introduced new rules for rewarding caseworkers called the Graduated Fee Scheme (GFS). RIPS was modified to cater for cases coming under the umbrella of the GFS. In addition, Applied Network Solutions built an online law library and ‘bundle maker’, so that caseworkers had additional information and a mechanism to tie up the testimonies and notes into a format required by English courts.
In 2010 the government introduced a payment strategy, which meant that the RMJ was only paid upon completion of each case. With some cases taking a long time to complete, the RMJ could no longer fund its operations and had to go into administration. (See Guardian, June 2010).
The RMJ cases were then distributed to legal aid organisations and to the Immigration Advisory Service within the Ministry of Justice.
There were many incidents of refugees committing suicide when they were informed that they either had no lawyer or that their lawyer was in a different location in the UK.
At the initiative of AMERA UK,1 AMERA Egypt - an NGO that provided legal assistance in Cairo, Egypt and with funding from Comic Relief - requested the managing director of Applied Network Solutions, David Johnston, visit Egypt to explore the possibility of installing the RIPS software to manage its work with refugees.
This resulted in the software being expanded to address the much wider needs of a refugee community along with refugee status determination (RSD), including the additional services that AMERA Egypt provided: psychosocial, minors, community outreach, detention, education, sexual and gender based violence, as well as RSD.
To date, RIPS is being used by law firms and NGOs to manage the records of more than 50,000 refugee cases.
1 Now AMERA International. AMERA International is a UK registered charity, which promotes access to quality legal aid services for refugees and asylum seekers. It encourages the use of open access tools to help law firms and NGOs navigate complex legal processes. This includes promoting the use of RIPs as a robust, tried and tested case management system.