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Legal aid cuts a ‘black mark’ on government's children's rights record

Parliamentary committee calls for a review of young people's access to justice

24 March 2015

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The government's record on children's rights has been criticised due to the detrimental impact of legal aid cuts by parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights.

The committee, which includes five Conservatives, four Labour members, two Liberal Democrats and one cross-bencher, expressed its disappointment that, during the period of austerity, children from disadvantaged backgrounds have suffered disproportionately.

The parliamentarians also concluded that the government's statutory duty to eliminate child poverty by 2020 should be treated as a human rights issue.

The committee's report found: 'The government's reforms to legal aid have been a significant black mark on its human rights record during the second half of this parliament... the evidence we heard from the outgoing Children's Commissioner for England and from all the NGOs we took oral evidence from provides firm grounds for a new government of whatever make-up to look again at these reforms and to undo some of the harm they have caused to children.'

Chair of the committee, Dr Hywel Francis MP, said: 'The 2010 commitment by the government to have due regard to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child when making policy and law was a bold and welcome step. In many areas things have improved for children over this parliament as a result, although the momentum set in train in 2010 has slowed considerably in some areas. We hope the new government will renew that commitment and that our successor committee will monitor how children's rights are fully taken into account in new law and policy.'

He continued: 'The different approaches of the devolved administrations to children's rights and the challenges presented in achieving a coherent overarching implementation of the convention is something our successor committee needs to take account of in its work, and which the government must address as the changes brought into place by the devolutionary settlement in the UK continue.'

JustRights, a coalition of charities and non-governmental organisations campaigning for fair access to legal representation for young people, has warned the government about the impact of legal aid cuts on children since 2011.

In December 2014, the group set up a petition calling for a review of young people's access to advice and legal support and it has been working on new ideas to ensure young people's legal needs are met.

Last month, JustRights published official data showing a collapse in social welfare and immigration legal aid for young people and evidence that only three children were granted 'exceptional' legal aid funding in the first 12 months for which figures were available.

James Kenrick, co-chair of JustRights, said: 'No child or young person should have to navigate our complex legal system alone. Despite official data showing a calamitous collapse in legal aid for young people, the government remains in denial and has told us, bizarrely, that there is insufficient evidence to justify looking at the evidence.

'We are pleased that the committee recognises the disastrous impact of legal aid reforms and clearly accepts that there are, in fact, "firm grounds" for a review. With vulnerable children and young people being left at risk of harm every day, there is no time to waste.'

John van der Luit-Drummond is legal reporter for Solicitors Journaljohn.vanderluit@solicitorsjournal.co.uk | @JvdLD

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Legal Aid Children