Posted: 18 August 2017

Children still struggling for justice

Access to justice should not be reserved for the rich. Legal aid was introduced after World War II to ensure that the most vulnerable can get legal advice and representation as needed, regardless of how much money they have.

In 2012, the Government made sweeping cuts to legal aid as part of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. The changes have forced people who need legal support for welfare, housing, custody of children and immigration to either find thousands of pounds to pay for a lawyer privately, represent themselves in a complex legal system, or drop their legal claim altogether. These are common problems, but those without money end up with little hope of justice.


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Call on the Government today to reinstate legal support for migrant children alone in the Uk

We are particularly worried about the impact that these cuts to legal aid have had on young people who are unaccompanied or separated from parents or a guardian. Expecting extremely vulnerable children and young people to find their way through complex legal problems on their own is unreasonable and cruel.

Our new research, written in partnership with Dr Helen Connolly, University of Bedfordshire, explores the experiences of these young people as they navigate the UK’s complex immigration system on their own, without legal aid.

What kind of immigration claims might unaccompanied and separated children be making?

Although legal aid is still available for asylum cases, children may be eligible to make various claims to remain as a survivor of trafficking, as a British citizen, or in a ‘mixed case’ - where a claim for asylum is combined with something not eligible for legal aid, such as a human rights claim.

Abebi’s story

Abebi has been in the UK since she was 13 years-old. She was assessed to be 27 years-old by the Home Office and the local authority refused to accept that she was a child, despite bone density scans indicating an age range between 16 to 20 years.

The local authority refused to take Abebi into care, despite her solicitor repeatedly urging them to reconsider. Abebi has encountered great trauma and signs suggest that she is a survivor of trafficking; she disclosed being sold and forced to work in a brothel. There is evidence of torture and branding by her traffickers and her mental health has been critical, threatening suicide. She is living in adult hotel accommodation in a notoriously unsafe area of the town.

Abebi’s solicitor had been supporting her case for six months voluntarily at no cost, because she is out of scope for legal aid funding. The lawyer describes the whole situation as a ‘huge disaster’.

This sort of case, though shocking, is not unusual. Legal professionals repeatedly go beyond their remit to support children with no other options for support.

A failing ‘safety net’ for children

If a child cannot access legal aid or free legal advice, they can apply for Exceptional Case Funding (ECF), which the Government introduced as a ‘safety net’ in 2012. This scheme is not working, with only 15 applications for emergency funding – out of thousands expected – made in one year.

Whilst there has been an increase in applications, as well as success of those applications, many professionals we interviewed had not completed an application for ECF because they considered it time-consuming, not worth the cost and likely to fail. Even in 2015/16, after the scheme had been running for three years and the acceptance criteria was relaxed, children were only involved in 15% of cases where ECF was granted for immigration.

This suggests that the post-2012 legal aid scheme is not giving children anywhere near the support they need, when compared with the previous system.

The need for urgent change

We found that children who are separated or unaccompanied are often particularly vulnerable because, like Abebi, they may have experienced traumatic circumstances and have complex immigration cases.

It’s difficult to know exactly how many separated and unaccompanied children are in the UK; we estimate approximately 13,500 to 16,600. This is an alarming number of children being put at serious risk of exploitation as they are forced to navigate complex legal systems on their own. If these children cannot fund their legal costs, they risk being deported to countries that are unsafe for them to return to, or they have never lived in, once they turn 18.

By Rupinder Parhar - Policy team

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