Reduced access to Legal Aid has left vulnerable children struggling to seek and achieve justice, according to a Children’s Commissioner for England report.
The report found that the government’s tightening of the rules on access to Legal Aid has hindered young people’s ability to turn to the courts when they are unable to resolve problems with social services, schools, immigration and other public services.
As a result of reduced Legal Aid, young people are having to rely on pro bono lawyers and charitable funding to seek justice in the courts. In some cases young people are having to represent themselves in court.
The report, which was based on interviews with 12- to 22-year-olds who have been affected by the change or have relied on Legal Aid in the past, warned that without legal support the problems the young people faced would have gone unresolved.
“Without legal intervention, those exercising public functions would have been likely to continue to fail to undertake their duties towards young people,” it said. “It took recourse to law to force local authorities and others to meet their statutory duties towards often extremely vulnerable children and young adults”
In one of the cases highlighted in the report a 20-year-old care leaver was refused Legal Aid and had to represent herself in court when trying to prevent custody of her child being awarded to the father, who she had left with due to domestic abuse.
“The judge asked me, do I have anything to say? But I’m not a barrister, what am I going to say?” she said.
Only after finding a barrister who agreed to work pro bono was she able to launch a successful appeal.
Children’s commissioner Maggie Atkinson said: “Behind the evidence in our research are countless heart-rending stories of children and vulnerable adults whose lives have been seriously affected by their inability to access legal representation. This means, in effect, that they cannot seek, let alone receive, justice.
“We should not expect children and young adults to face the complexities of the legal system on their own. These systems are daunting enough for adults, let alone vulnerable children and young people.”
Responding to the report, a Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “Our reforms have prioritised funding for cases involving the most vulnerable and have made sure that family cases involving children at risk can still get legal aid.
“We are closely monitoring the impact of the changes and would be concerned if there was any evidence presented to us that vulnerable children were not getting the legal help they needed.
“Since 2011 we have significantly reduced the time that care cases involving children take, and have introduced major reforms to keep more family disputes out of court.”