Thousands of children who are in the UK on their own are being denied access to the law, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation, homelessness and unfair treatment, new research from The Children’s Society has revealed.
It found that the removal of legal aid for most immigration cases means that many children, including those in local authority care, are at risk of being sexually abused or exploited because their immigration status cannot be resolved, increasing their vulnerability.
The Children’s Society is calling on the Government to make sure that children with immigration cases, who are here on their own can, once again, get legal aid. Without it, huge numbers of children are being left to fend for themselves. Many are having to gather witness statements, evidence about their past and risk having to represent themselves in court — a challenge that even adults find difficult.
Large numbers of these children have grown up in the UK after being sent to this country to live with friends or relatives, or have been left on their own after their parents died or they were abandoned.
This cut to legal aid has also resulted in a significant drop in the number of specialist immigration lawyers. Cut Off From Justice: The impact of excluding separated migrant children from legal aid found that, across the UK, free regulated services which deal with appeals and representation have been reduced by almost 50%, while overall immigration advice services have been cut by at least 30% since the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act came into force in 2013.
As a result, even children who are still entitled to legal aid, such as those seeking protection from persecution or who are known to have been trafficked, may be unable to get the legal support they need due to a lack of free services in their area.
For some of those who are in local authority care, too often decisions about what, if any, legal support they can get is being left up to financially-strapped councils and social workers, although they often lack the necessary expertise. The Children’s Society found that only one local authority had a formal policy on what they should do to support children with legal services in the absence of legal aid.
Decisions crucial to their lives are not being prioritised and are avoided until they hit crisis point – usually when children turn 18, which is when councils are no longer legally obliged to look after them.
The Children’s Society has applied for a judicial review to challenge the Lord Chancellor’s refusal to re-instate immigration legal aid for unaccompanied children following its removal under Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act.
Justice Secretary Michael Gove’s announcement that he will review legal aid is an important opportunity to make sure that children who are here on their own can, once again, get this vital support.
Matthew Reed, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society, said: 'The Government’s announcement that it will look again at legal aid is a vital opportunity to make sure that the thousands of vulnerable children in this country who are being denied a legal voice are once again given this critical support. Without legal aid, they are being denied the equal justice they deserve. This is putting many in danger and is harming their well-being and future opportunities. It is crucial the Government restores this lifeline to all children who are here on their own so none of them is cut off from justice.'
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Notes to editors
- For the summary of the report see ‘Cut Off From Justice: The impact of excluding separated migrant children from legal aid’ http://childrenssociety.org.uk/legal-aid-report-summary
- The Children’s Society commissioned Dr Helen Connolly at the University of Bedfordshire to conduct the research. The Paul Hamlyn Foundation funded this joint project. The previous government made £350 million worth of cuts to civil legal aid with the implementation of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) in April 2013. Following some concessions made in the House of Lords during the passage of the Bill, the Government estimated that making sure that all children under 18 have access to civil legal aid would cost £5-6 million.
- Precise figures for how many separated migrant children are affected are hard to establish as there is no systematic collection of data by councils of the numbers of separated migrant children in the UK, particularly for children with non-asylum immigration claims. According to Freedom of Information requests we made for this report, 107 councils identified a total 3,612 separated migrant children in care including those with asylum claims. Additionally, we have estimated that there could be between 9,300 and 12,400 migrant children living in private foster care arrangements. In both instances, a significant proportion of these would no longer be entitled to legal aid following the implementation of changes to legal aid.
- According to the Government’s own figures from 2009/2010, there were around 2,500 cases a year in which children as claimants in their immigration cases were granted legal aid. Following the cuts to legal aid, these children are no longer be eligible for this support.
- The Children’s Society has helped change children’s stories for over a century. We expose injustice and address hard truths, tackling child poverty and neglect head-on. We fight for change based on the experiences of every child we work with and the solid evidence we gather. Through our campaigning, commitment and care, we are determined to give every child in this country the greatest possible chance in life.