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Separated migrant children put at risk because of cuts to legal aid

The Children’s Society finds that ‘huge numbers of children must fend for themselves’

The Children's Society has found that the removal of legal aid for most immigration cases means that thousands of children, including those in local authority care, are at risk of being sexually abused or exploited because their immigration status cannot be resolved.

The charity is calling on the Government to make sure that children with immigration cases, who in the UK on their own can, once again, get legal aid. Without it, it is said, huge numbers of children are being left to fend for themselves: many are having to gather witness statements, evidence about their past and risk having to represent themselves in court.

Large numbers of these children have grown up in the UK after being sent to this country to live with friends or relatives, or have been left on their own after their parents died or they were abandoned.

The Children's Society notes that the cut to legal aid has also resulted in a significant drop in the number of specialist immigration lawyers. Cut Off From Justice: The impact of excluding separated migrant children from legal aid found that, across the UK, free regulated services which deal with appeals and representation have been reduced by almost 50%, while overall immigration advice services have been cut by at least 30% since the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act came into force in 2013.

Consequently, even those children who are still entitled to legal aid, such as those seeking protection from persecution or who are known to have been trafficked, may be unable to get the legal support they need due to a lack of free services in their area.

For some of those who are in local authority care, too often decisions about what, if any, legal support they can get is being left up to financially-strapped local authorities and social workers, although they often lack the necessary expertise. The Children's Society found that only one local authority had a formal policy on what they should do to support children with legal services in the absence of legal aid.

The Children's Society has applied for a judicial review to challenge the Lord Chancellor's refusal to re-instate immigration legal aid for unaccompanied children following its removal under Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act.

Justice Secretary Michael Gove's announcement that he will review legal aid is an important opportunity to make sure that children who are here on their own can, once again, get this vital support.

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

'The Government's announcement that it will look again at legal aid is a vital opportunity to make sure that the thousands of vulnerable children in this country who are being denied a legal voice are once again given this critical support. Without legal aid, they are being denied the equal justice they deserve. This is putting many in danger and is harming their well-being and future opportunities. It is crucial the Government restores this lifeline to all children who are here on their own so none of them is cut off from justice.'

Kamena Dorling, who manages Coram Children's Legal Centre Migrant Children's Project, commented:

'Since drastic cuts to legal aid in April 2013, we are seeing thousands of children and young people unable to enforce the rights and protections that the law provides to them. Without legal support, they cannot navigate the complex legal processes they face, which have life-changing consequences.

'We are calling on the Government to listen to the growing number of parliamentary bodies and other organisations which have expressed their deep concerns, and look again at the provision of legal services for children. We cannot leave children to navigate a complex legal system all on their own.'

For a summary of the report, please click here.