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Empathy and Expertise: Case Workers and Immigration/Asylum Applicants in London


  • We are indebted to those clients and case workers at the South West London Law Centers who allowed us to sit in on their meetings and who gave up their time to discuss a wide range of matters with us. Thanks to all those in our advisory group who attended the meeting and provided feedback on the two written pieces arising out of the project, to the participants in the LSE Anthropology Department's staff writing seminar held in 2011, and to Toby Kelly for his comments. We are grateful, too, to the anonymous reviewers who commented on the article. The research was funded by a British Academy Small Grant and the STICERD fund at the LSE. Opinions are our own.

Deborah James is Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics. She may be contacted at

Evan Killick is Lecturer in Anthropology and Development Studies at the University of Sussex. He may be contacted at


Under recent reforms, the UK government has eroded state funding for civil legal aid. Funding cuts affect asylum and immigration law as produced, practiced, and mediated in the course of interactions between case workers and their clients in legal-aid-funded Law Centers in South London. The article explores the contradictory character of one-on-one relationships between case workers and clients. Despite pressure to quantify their work in “value for money” terms, the empathy that often motivates case workers drives them to provide exceptional levels of aid to their clients in facing an arbitrary bureaucracy. Such personalized commitment may persuade applicants to accept the decisions of that bureaucracy, thus reinforcing a hegemonic understanding of the power of the law. The article, however, challenges the assumption that, in attempting to shape immigrant/refugees as model—albeit second-class—citizens, case worker/client interactions necessarily subscribe to the categories and assumptions that underpin UK immigration and asylum law.