Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are selling sex, begging or doing other forms of illegal work to pay for legal representation due to restrictions to legal aid funding, according to the Children’s Society.
The charity claims some lawyers are asking for thousands of pounds to continue children’s cases because they cannot afford to take them on. Legal aid rates being offered following reforms introduced since 2004 are too low it is claimed.
Lisa Nandy, policy adviser at the Children’s Society, said a “very common picture was emerging” of asylum-seeking children being asked for money and “engaging in illegal activities to obtain it”. She cited one case where a girl was asked for £3,000 to cover her appeal and the charity was “very concerned” about where she got the money.
Around 3,000 unaccompanied children claim asylum in the UK every year, but 94% of cases are refused, according to figures cited in a report published by the charity. It argued that children did not get enough support to allow them to make their case for protection.
Before 2004 lawyers charged by the hour for legal aid work. In 2004, the Legal Services Commission limited the number of hours lawyers could do on immigration and asylum cases. From this month, following more reforms to legal aid, lawyers get a fixed fee for particular types of cases including asylum cases, which critics consider to be too small.
Steve Symonds, legal officer at the Immigration Law Practitioners Association, said there was an “advice desert” in some areas of the UK leaving many children without representation. In particular, there was a lack of lawyers able to deal with cases where children’s ages are disputed by immigration officials.
“There are either no lawyers doing legal aid work or, in other areas there may be one or two, who cannot meet demand,” he said.
Symonds said there were particular complications with children’s cases, adding: “Children can be reluctant to talk through difficult experiences and sometimes don’t understand what has happened to them so lawyers are left to piece accounts together and this can take a long time.”