Posted: 23 November 2017

Fighting for access to legal aid

Children are being cut off from justice as cuts to legal aid mean there is no one by their side.

Ayesha is a partner at the solicitors Luqmani, Thompson and Partners – a specialist immigration law firm based in north London. The firm helps businesses and individuals dealing with immigration issues and assist those whose status has been questioned.

A brief history of the cuts to legal aid

The scope of legal aid was significantly reduced by the introduction of LASPO (Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012). This meant cases which would have been covered by legal aid in the past, were no longer covered.  The justification for these cuts was the need to save money, after all everyone was being affected by austerity, we all had to tighten our belts.

However cutting back on legal aid is not like cutting back on your weekly latte intake.

Legal aid is a safety net, which enables people to get advice and protect their rights, when they are being encroached on by those who are often better resourced in terms of knowledge and funds.  It seems the cuts were brought in without consideration of the consequences.

These cuts have affected vulnerable children’s access to justice most. Children are always particularly vulnerable, because they are reliant on those around them to help them.

How children have been cut off from justice

I want to give an example of how children, since the cuts, have struggled to obtain legal aid, and the consequences of this.

Asylum seeking children, who come to the UK and are able to find relatives to help them on arrival, sometimes find that they are not eligible for legal aid because the means of their relatives has to be assessed. The financial burden being imposed on distant relatives, who are already showing incredible generosity by taking these children in, sometimes leads to this support breaking down because the cost of paying for legal advice on top of all the other costs is just too much.

The increasing cost of a stable future

Young people who made an immigration application based on their family life or other connections to the UK, then found they would have to pay Home Office application fees of £993. They were also not automatically entitled to legal aid, even if they did not have a lot, or any money.

In such instances they are reliant on the local authority being willing to pay for their solicitor, or again, a relative being willing and able to pay. They could try to obtain Exceptional Case Funding from the Legal Aid Agency for the legal costs. Only after a number of legal challenges has this, in theory become more accessible, but in practice the limited funding available to lawyers, means this is not viable for firms to take on.

What is the result of legal aid cuts on vulnerable children?

The consequence of the change in legal aid is that children are missing out. Why should children have to rely on applying for waivers and exceptional funding, which is ad hoc and cannot be relied upon? They should always have access to legal advice and the ability to make applications, this is not a luxury, a child’s protection of their rights and their ability to get legal advice are essential.

When cutting costs even in difficult times, the safety nets should be the last thing to go. 

 

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