Lone migrant children hit by Legal Aid cuts

Tristan Donovan
Thursday, August 17, 2017

Unaccompanied migrant children are struggling to access justice thanks to a double-whammy of Legal Aid cuts and rising Home Office fees, analysis shows.

Many migrant children are unable to access Legal Aid to help with immigration applications. Image: Laura McCluskey/The Children’s Society
Many migrant children are unable to access Legal Aid to help with immigration applications. Image: Laura McCluskey/The Children’s Society

In a report released today, The Children's Society said the decision to axe Legal Aid support for non-asylum immigration claims in April 2013 has left thousands of lone migrant children and young people struggling to find ways to pay for legal help with their immigration applications.

The impact of removing Legal Aid support has been exacerbated by large increases in Home Office administration charges for immigration applications, the Society's Cut Off from Justice report states.

The report, produced in partnership with the University of Bedfordshire, also found that the Exceptional Case Funding (ECF) scheme, which allows those excluded from Legal Aid to get support in certain circumstances, was not working for lone migrant children.

In 2015/16, just 15 applications for ECF support in immigration matters involved children under 18 despite the Ministry of Justice expecting 2,490 such cases that year.

Children who may have been trafficked are also being affected, the report warned. For while children who have been trafficked are eligible for Legal Aid they can only access it once the National Referral Mechanism decides there are reasonable grounds to suspect trafficking.

"Expecting extremely vulnerable children and young people to find their way through complex legal problems on their own is unreasonable and cruel," said Sam Royston, policy director at The Children's Society.

"Cut off from crucial help with legal costs and with Home Office application fees soaring, vulnerable children are finding themselves in impossible situations, with nowhere left to turn. As they struggle to find a way to pay, they are at serious risk of exploitation."

The report also found that the support local authorities offer unaccompanied migrant children varies greatly with some councils offering help from in-house legal teams while others only helped on a case-by-case basis.

The Children's Society said the government should reinstate Legal Aid support for unaccompanied and separated migrant children in immigration cases and give all children suspected of being trafficked access to either ECF or Legal Aid.

The charity also recommended that the government formalises the role of local authorities in providing support and advice to unaccompanied migrant children and young people.

Social workers and independent reviewing officers should also be trained to identify migrant children outside the scope of Legal Aid and how to support them if that is the case, it added.

In addition, the report called for the Home Office to waive the Immigration Health Surcharge for unaccompanied under-25s.

"All children and young people in the UK should be kept safe and have equal access to justice, regardless of where they were born," said Royston.

"The government must bring back access to Legal Aid, and waive its extortionate application fees, for all migrant children who are here on their own."

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