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Children’s access to legal aid called for review

30th Sep 2014

Legal aid reforms are leaving many children lacking representation in family courts, the children’s commissioner for England has announced.

The Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England reports that currently one or both parties have no legal representation in 70% of private family cases. Their figures are taken from the most in-depth study so far into the impact of the cuts in legal aid from April 2013.

The scheme intended to help out in the most serious cases has also failed, with just 57 of the predicted 3700 ‘exceptional funding’ grants being awarded in the last year.

Maggie Atkinson, children’s commissioner for England, believes this just shows the legal aid reforms ‘do not make sense’, and that the lack of legal representation means decisions are not being made properly, so people are not getting the justice they need.

The report was drawn up by a leading children’s charity, Just for Kids Law, and was based upon interviews with 28 young people aged between 12 and 22. It found that most did not know about legal aid, nor did they realise that their problems were actually a legal matter, with many only finding out by chance.

Joel Carter, projects manager for Just for Kids Law and head of the research team, states that the study shows many vulnerable children ‘have been left in limbo by the 2013 legal aid cuts’. The reforms have left them unable to access the advice they need, yet they cannot solve the problems alone.

Not only that, but when children are seeking help, local authorities have been taking advantage of their lack of knowledge to avoid providing them with services, only doing so when forced to by law.

Resolution, a national family law organisation, has also offered their opinion on the failings in legal reform, particularly the failed ‘exceptional funding’ grant allocations.

Jo Edwards, chair of Resolution, notes that since the cuts were first introduced, the organisation has been arguing that they would do the most harm to the most vulnerable people in society, and believes this new study highlights this problem precisely.

Following the High Court judgement earlier in the week that the consultation process on legal aid was so unfair as to be illegal, children’s charities hope this report will also force the government to review the system, and ensure young people are getting the support they need.