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Categorized | Civil Law, Legal Aid

Children denied justice by legal aid cuts

Children denied justice by legal aid cuts

Last Wednesday saw the publication of a scathing report by the children’s commissioner for England, Maggie Atkinson.

The report, ‘Legal Aid Changes Since April 2013: Child Rights Impact Assessment’, claims that rights guaranteed by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child are being breached because children are denied adequate legal representation and support. Nearly three-quarters of private family cases involve one or both parties without legal representation.

According to Maggie Atkinson the research shows that the legal aid reforms “do not make sense.” She said: “The system is so difficult to navigate that it leads to people having no legal representation. That in turn can prevent decision-makers making decisions properly, as well as stopping individuals obtaining the justice they need.” Short-term savings in legal aid are “simply shifting costs to another part of the system”.

Vulnerable teenagers are being deprived of justice because cuts to legal aid are preventing them from getting representation. Legitimate claims for housing, welfare and other cases are being abandoned and children overawed by officials are often unable to fight their way through hostile bureaucracies, the report concludes.

“Behind the evidence in our research are countless heartrending stories of children and vulnerable young adults whose lives have been seriously affected by their inability to access legal representation,” Atkinson said. “This means, in effect, that they cannot seek, let alone receive, justice. We should not expect children and young adults to face the complexities of the legal system on their own. These systems are daunting enough for adults, let alone vulnerable children and young people.”

The report shows that a scheme supposed to plug the gap in serious cases has fallen far short of its intended reach. Only 57 ‘exceptional funding’ grants were provided in the year since the cuts came in to force, rather than the 3,700 the Ministry of Justice had predicted.

The report recommends “that urgent review and reform is needed in order to ensure that the Legal Aid system can adequately protect the rights of children and young people and that the Government’s obligations under the UNCRC are met.” It stresses the need “to ensure that the exceptional funding procedure under Section 10 of LASPO is funding cases where children and young people’s rights may otherwise be infringed and is accessible to children and young people acting without assistance.”

The family justice minister Simon Hughes has indeed called for an urgent review of legal aid cuts in a move that that would seem to signal Liberal Democrat unease over the impact of coalition austerity policies. He said: “I have asked the Ministry of Justice to review the findings in this report. We have had to make difficult decisions to protect legal aid for the long term but this shouldn’t be at the expense of the rights of children. If there are gaps in the new system I am determined they are addressed urgently.”

The minister has also written a formal memorandum to the justice secretary, Chris Grayling, saying: “I understand it was agreed that the department would review the situation if we were provided with evidence that demonstrated vulnerable individuals were being denied access to legal aid.” He added that, given the potentially vulnerable position of children in the legal system, the concerns raised in the report should be investigated.

The full text of ‘Legal Aid Changes Since April 2013: Child Rights Impact Assessment’ can be found at:
http://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/content/publications/content_871

This post was written by:

- who has written 462 posts on Upper Case – The Anya Legal Journal.

Mike Gribbin is a retired Civil Servant with wide experience, including the drafting and implementation of Parliamentary legislation and regulations. He is the editor of “Criminal Offences Handbook”, a uniquely comprehensive guide to more than one thousand ways to fall foul of UK criminal law. He is Editor of the Upper Case Legal Journal and has been writing blog posts for the past eight years.

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