Vulnerable children and families have been among the hardest hit by cuts to legal aid, according to a critical report by MPs.
Legal aid to support child trafficking victims' cases has been removed
The justice select committee report found that the government failed to provide financial assistance for those most in need as it axed £2bn from the £9.8bn legal aid budget.
A key concern was the removal of legal aid for child victims of trafficking, who are often unable to represent themselves due to their young age and language barriers.
The report says: “Children are inevitably at a disadvantage in asserting their legal rights, even in matters which can have serious long-term consequences for them. We are particularly concerned by evidence that trafficked and separated children are struggling to access immigration advice and assistance.”
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is being called on to review the impact of the legal aid changes on children’s rights and ensure all trafficked children are able to access legal assistance.
Committee chair Alan Beith said: “The urgency of the financial situation in which this country found itself in 2010 meant that the MoJ was faced with difficult decisions: making £2bn of savings from a budget of £9.8bn was clearly a very challenging target and it was successfully achieved.
“But this has limited access to justice for some of those who need legal aid the most, and in some instances has failed to prevent cases becoming more serious and creating further claims on the legal aid budget.”
The report also criticised the strict requirements victims of domestic abuse now faced in accessing legal aid and how cuts had damaged legal advice charities.
Among the cases presented to the committee was a parent with learning difficulties who wanted to contest the adoption of their child, but was refused legal aid for being £35 a month over the eligible financial limit.
Laura Janes, co-chair of children’s rights coalition JustRights, added: “There is now a groundswell of support for an urgent review to ensure that young people’s access to justice is protected.
“Excluding young people from the rule of law is unforgivable. If we want young people to respect the law, they should not be excluded from its protection.”
Coram Children’s Legal Centre director Professor Carolyn Hamilton, who gave evidence to the committee, said: “We are calling on the government to listen to the committee 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.”
A MoJ spokesperson said: "We are keeping these reforms under close review and have already made changes to address issues raised. We are also undertaking a comprehensive research programme to better understand why people choose to go court and how they deal with legal problems."
Story courtesy of CYPNow