On Wednesday 23rd October 2013, Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights heard oral evidence on the government’s latest proposals to cut legal aid. The evidence was clear. Those that will suffer the most from the proposals are society’s most vulnerable groups – children, care leavers, and victims of sexual abuse and human trafficking.
Of particular concern is the proposed residence test. Childcare proceedings are a purported exception to the residence test. But what if a child runs away from home and seeks the accommodation and protection to which they’re entitled under the Children Act? Unless that child takes with them documents sufficient to prove their 12-month residence in the UK, they won’t receive legal aid if support is wrongly denied to them.
Similarly threatened are those with other community care problems, for which there is no exception: where residence cannot be proved, no legal aid will be provided to help any child seeking assistance for his or her special educational needs. Moreover, even where, for example, victims of child trafficking are receiving legal aid for issues directly related to their trafficking situation, they would still be deprived of assistance in accessing accommodation and other basic services as they attempt to regularise their status. Where one of a child’s legal issues may fall within scope, others will not, and the help that they do receive will be wholly undermined by the lack of legal aid for the problems that remain.
What if the government body tasked with deciding whether or not you’re a victim of trafficking gets it wrong? How will a child challenge his or her failure to be deemed a member of the class of persons for whom exceptions are made?
Of course, adult migrants are seriously threatened by the changes too. Successive governments have pushed us further and further towards the point at which legal assistance for the poor and marginalised will disappear. The present cuts that our legal system faces are the most savage yet, but they must not be seen as a fait accompli. Let’s act now before it’s too late.
JustRights is a coalition of charities campaigning for fair access to advice, advocacy, and legal representation for children and young people. See JustRights’ briefings on the impact of legal aid changes on children and young people.
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