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Law Society condemns residence test decision for legal aid

MPs vote to pass the measure

The Law Society has condemned the government's decision to impose a residence test on civil legal aid eligibility.

Members of Parliament have voted to pass a measure that prevents access to legal aid for non-UK residents who may have a compelling claim.

Two parliamentary select committees have issued critical reports concerning the proposal: the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) warned in a report last month that the residence test will inevitably lead to breaches by the United Kingdom of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, while the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments (JCSI) has said of the case put forward by the government that it 'does not find these arguments persuasive.'

An internal Ministry of Justice document has revealed that no savings have been identified as a result of the policy, although it is likely to cause 'an increase in costs' to the Legal Aid Agency.

Law Society Vice President Andrew Caplen commented:

'The Law Society has consistently voiced its opposition to the civil legal aid residence test, which we regard as unnecessary and discriminatory. The government has produced no evidence of any costs savings or that there is any significant issue of people with tenuous connections to the UK abusing the legal aid system.

'While we note that the government has conceded some exemptions to the test we agree with the recent findings of the Joint Committee on Human Rights that the test will put the UK in breach of its obligations under the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child. The test places a huge administrative burden on legal aid practitioners who will have to apply the test to all clients including British nationals. We have serious concerns that many of the most vulnerable clients will not be able to provide the necessary documentation to satisfy the test and will be denied legal aid to which they should be entitled.'

Matthew Reed, Chief Executive of The Children's Society, agreed, saying:

'By voting to restrict legal aid only to people who have a "strong connection" with the UK undermines the government's commitment to protect victims of trafficking under the Modern Slavery Bill. 

'Many of the most vulnerable children – including those trafficked into a range of abuse – will be prevented from challenging damaging decisions that determine their fate, putting them at risk of further exploitation. 

'Legal aid is critical to protecting children's rights. It is vital the government abandons its damaging plans to introduce a residence test for civil legal aid and put children's welfare and rights first.'

You can read the Commons debate here. The Legal Aid Agency's draft guidance for the residence test is here.

13/7/14