Posted: 17 July 2015

Thousands of children cut off from justice

In April 2013, the Government implemented cuts to the legal aid system, which left thousands of individuals including children unable to get free support with their legal issues in crucial areas of law such as welfare and immigration. Without legal aid thousands of children – even those without any parents or guardians in this country – have nowhere to turn to for help. According to our research, this has left children exposed to exploitation and abuse because they are desperate to raise funds to pay for a lawyer.

Our new report, Cut Off from Justice: The impact of excluding separated migrant children from legal aid, reveals that since removing legal aid access for immigration cases, many children are being forced to resolve their immigration issues on their own or are avoiding the issues altogether.

Children without a parent or guardian

Our report focuses on the situation thousands of separated migrant children face who are alone and without a parent or guardian in this country. In some cases they have been abandoned by their carers or have been left on their own – often after the death of a parent. Some have been trafficked here for exploitation but have not yet been identified.

Many of these children have spent their formative years in the UK and feel that this is their home, with no lasting connections anywhere else. In fact, some of the young people we spoke to thought they were British before they realised they didn’t have an immigration status.

According to government data, cuts to legal aid have left at least 2,500 cases each year where children are claimants in their immigration cases and are not eligible for legal aid or exceptional funding.

Reduced services impact even those that are eligible for legal aid

Our research found that since the legal aid cuts came into effect, there has been at least a 30% reduction in immigration advice services across the country and an almost 50% decrease in the number of free services available to deal with the most complex aspects of children’s cases, including appeals and representation in court. This means that even those who are still eligible for legal aid – such as children seeking refugee protection and recognised victims of human trafficking – will have a hard time finding legal services in their area.

Without legal aid children are being forced to become ‘mini solicitors’, struggling to prepare witness statements and gathering evidence about their past - activities that many adults would find difficult. Aside from the negative consequences this has on their case, this is also leaving them stressed, fearful and unable to participate properly in their education. 

Most worryingly, some young people told us they have had to raise thousands of pounds to pay for legal advice themselves. We heard how children are being exploited or put at risk of serious harm including being sexually exploited and groomed by criminal networks because they are desperate to resolve their immigration issues.

Justice by chance

Freedom of Information responses from 107 local authorities revealed that only one local authority had a specific policy in place to decide on legal support for children’s immigration cases. The vast majority have no special arrangements and many appear to be leaving it up to individual social workers to make legal decisions about which child is supported and how.

Our research found that the most visible impact of changes to legal aid is on older children between the ages of 16 and 18, a key transition point when many realise that they need to resolve their immigration status to access higher education or to work.

Professionals we spoke to highlight the dangers of young people becoming destitute when turning 18 because their immigration applications had been put on hold as a result of having no access to legal aid. This includes young people being forced to ‘sofa surf’, and sleep on night buses or in parks. 

What needs to change?

Our report brings into sharp focus the various ways that cuts to legal aid have stacked the odds against separated migrant children, undermining their chances of finding a permanent and safe solution to their immigration issues. We are calling on the Government to urgently reinstate legal aid for all separated children for their immigration cases.

Until this happens, local authorities should develop written policies on the nature and scope of their responsibilities in relation to legal support for these children so that at least those children who are in care can get reliable support. Local authorities must train their staff, including social workers, to identify children who are out of scope of legal aid and to support their legal needs within this new and complex environment. 

By Lucy Gregg - Policy team