The children’s commissioner, Maggie Atkinson, has stated that children and young people are being denied justice as a result of the Ministry of Justice’s legal cuts.
A report by her office indicates rights guaranteed within the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), a treaty Britain has ratified, have been infringed because children are unable to navigate complex procedures without legal assistance. These rights include the right to be heard, the right for children not to be separated from parents and that their interests be given primary consideration.
“Behind the evidence in our research are countless heartrending stories of children and vulnerable young 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.
“The system is so difficult to navigate that it leads to people having no legal representation. That in turn can prevent decision-makers making decisions properly, as well as stopping individuals obtaining the justice they need … Short-term savings to one part of the legal system – legal aid – are simply shifting costs to another, because judges direct that representation has to be funded.”
Exceptional Funding System
Claims for housing, welfare and other cases are often not pursued by children as they are unable to work through the bureaucracy surrounding the system. The report does not make clear the frequency with which children have appeared unrepresented before family courts but details the case of Q v Q, where the president of the high court’s family division, recently ordered HM Courts & Tribunals Service to pay for representation to represent a young person. The report adds that an exceptional funding system, created by the Ministry of Justice to help those whose human rights are at risk, is not working with only 57 grants being provided in the first year as opposed to the 3,700 expected as the application system is too complex.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson defended their position, saying:
“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.”
Laura Janes of The Howard League for Penal Reform commented:
“This important report echoes my experience of the problems young people in conflict with the law face. So many young people see the law as something that is there to punish them rather than a potential solution to the problems they face.
“This means that children and young people are disadvantaged from the outset and require additional support to access and then make the best use of the law. The blanket application of legal aid cuts across the board means that children and young people, who do not even know about their legal rights or the existence of legal aid, have been doubly affected.”