REFUGEES in Scotland face waiting up to a year for their asylum applications to be heard after the UK government slashed the number of cases which can be heard at Scotland's only immigration court.

Immigration lawyers say the number of courts sitting has been reduced from five or six a day to only two following moves by the Ministry of Justice.

They have warned that asylum seekers who are not permitted to work while their cases are processed could now spend much more time on benefits.

Charities that work with refugees fear the reduction will restrict the number of bail hearings and force vulnerable people to spend longer in detention.

The First-tier Tribunal Immigration and Asylum Chamber at the Eagle Building in Glasgow is the only regularly sitting body in Scotland which deals with immigration and asylum cases.

It also handles applications to study in Scotland, and entry clearance matters - such as when children abroad are separated from their parents.

One leading immigration lawyer, who asked not to be named, said: “The court has been very busy over recent months, though is being forced to reduce from five or six courts a day down to only two a day. This is because of government cuts and is not good for anyone. People will have to wait close to a year for their cases to be heard.

“I suspect that it will be unworkable. The first issue will be about access to justice, where appeal hearings are listed months away. It wouldn't surprise me if we returned to the situation - which some English hearing centres currently have - where appellants are given hearing dates which are eight or nine months away, or more. During this time, an individual's status may remain uncertain or they may remain separated from family members. That doesn't facilitate a fast, fair or efficient immigration system.

“It will also lead to a procedural problem where the court will be much less likely to agree to adjourn hearings – perhaps for additional documents or medical reports - as that would leave the court completely empty, thereby we will end up in the ludicrous position of hearings being heard unnecessarily and no doubt appealed further.”

Another prominent Scottish immigration lawyer, who also wished to remain anonymous, said: “There has been a dramatic reduction in the number of courts sitting as from August. Such a reduction can cause delays. These delays have a knock on effect.

“Family members can be separated for longer. People awaiting cases may spend longer in detention. The costs of such detentions are significant. Asylum seekers may have to wait longer before they are in a position to work and contribute to society. They spend longer on benefits.

“If the purpose of any reduction is to save money, it will have a knock on effect causing greater cost to the taxpayer elsewhere.”

Anna Beesley, convenor of the Detention Forum Scotland, a group of around thirty organisations which campaign against immigration detention in Scotland, attacked the decision.

She said: “The UK is one of a shameful band of countries that does not have a time limit on how long it deprives people of their freedom in immigration detention centres like Dungavel.

“Applying for bail is the only route to challenge decisions by the Home Office to detain. This shocking move by the Ministry of Justice will severely restrict the number of bail hearings that can be heard and is an assault on access to justice.

“It adds further weight to the need for a radical overhaul of the UK's appalling, inhumane and expensive regime of immigration detention.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said any changes that “deny access to justice” are “extremely worrying” and called for the implementation of a cross-party Smith Commission recommendation to hand Scottish ministers control of Scotland’s only asylum and immigration court.

“Being able to handle our own hearings would undoubtedly improve the process allowing us to decide the right number of hearings and the timescales in which they are processed,” she added. “We are not content with how migrants are currently treated and any changes made by us would be done with the aim of dealing efficiently with applications and treating migrants with the dignity and respect they deserve.”

An HM Courts and Tribunals Service spokesman said: “Following the implementation of the Immigration Act 2014, we expect a sizeable reduction in the number of appeals and have therefore reduced the number of judicial sitting days in the Immigration Tribunal.

“Latest figures show the performance in the tribunal remains consistent with asylum appeals being disposed of within 15 weeks on average.”