Further cuts to legal aid to affect some of the most vulnerable children
Update: Read our response to the government consultation
In the wake of extensive legal aid cuts included in the legal aid, sentencing and punishment of offenders act 2012, the government has published a consultation on further reforms to legal aid. (Read our briefing on legal aid and the devestating impact the changes can have on children.)
One of the key reasons why we have a system of legal aid in this country is to make sure that the poorest and most marginalised in our society can challenge the decisions which affect their lives made by those with power and resources.
Legal aid is only available to those who cannot afford it already and provides vital help to some of the most vulnerable children and young people across the country to help them navigate our complex legal system when they need it most and where other methods of resolution don’t work. We see this need every day in our projects across the country.
The government’s latest consultation on further cuts to legal aid includes a number of proposals which if implemented would have drastic consequences for many thousands of children and young people.
Residence test could put more vulnerable children at risk
One of the proposals being considered is a ‘residence test’ whereby in order to qualify for legal aid, a person must be ‘lawfully resident’ in the UK, and have been so for at least 12 months. The government argues that only those with a ‘lasting connection’ to the UK should have access to this service.
However, this would mean that no matter what your income, age or capacity, if you couldn’t afford a lawyer, you wouldn’t be able to get any legal advice even if you were a child or young person. In reality this measure is likely to put many more children and young people at risk of harm including abuse and exploitation.
Adolescents at risk of harm
Our Hidden Children research revealed that for many children from abroad living in the UK who are exploited and abused in private fostering arrangements, even when they manage to escape or are made homeless, they often faced serious barriers to accessing support from statutory agencies.
They are turned away often from children’s services because they don’t have a passport or because their age is not believed. This includes children who have suffered physical violence, sexual abuse, exploitation or domestic servitude.
Homeless and abandoned children
Homeless young people who have been abandoned by their parents or carers will also be affected by this proposal. Sarah, who we supported, was brought to the UK when she was six years old to live with her father. But he abandoned her here when she was 14, leaving her without a legal status. She ended up living with friends, sleeping on the floor and with no money to support herself, unaware that she even had an immigration issue.
Sarah eventually approached social services when she was 17 but they refused to support her on account of her immigration status. Only after support from a welfare solicitor, who helped her to challenge the local authority’s unlawful decision to refuse her support, did she get the help she was entitled to and desperately needed.
Unfortunately we see this happen all too often and it’s a problem which was highlighted by the Education Select Committee itself in its recent inquiry into child protection. With the new residence test, Sarah would not be able to get legal help with her case and would be left homeless. Given that she has lived here for the last 11 years - the majority of her life - it’s not possible to say that she has no ‘lasting connections’ in this country. This is the only home she knows.
Children and young people’s voices should be heard
If the residence test and other proposed changes are introduced, many of the children, young people and families we work with every day will no longer be able to access legal redress, which could leave children homeless and at risk of abuse and exploitation.
We will be responding to the government’s consultation which ends on 4 June. We encourage others to do the same to make sure that children and young people’s voices are heard.