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Children’s Commissioner report suggests justice system is failing young people

Children unable to resolve complex legal problems because of lack of access to specialist advice

24 September 2014

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Vulnerable children and young people have been 'left in limbo' by the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO), according to a new report from a leading children's charity.

Just for Kids Law has conducted research on behalf of the Office of the Children's Commissioner to inform its production of a Child Rights Impact Assessment, which measures the effect of LASPO on young people.

The findings, based on interviews with 28 young people aged between 12 and 22, found that most interviewees did not know about legal aid.

Many young people were unaware that the problems they faced were actually a legal matter, capable of being resolved by recourse to law. Interviewees often only discovered their problem was a legal matter by chance, sometimes years later.

The research also showed that being a litigant in person made it less likely that a young person would be able to resolve their problem and this had a negative impact on their wellbeing.

Furthermore, many of the problems faced by young people were difficult to resolve even with expert legal advice.

'Unlawful instruction'

There was even evidence of some local authorities taking advantage of young people's lack of knowledge of their rights to avoid providing statutory services.

One solicitor from a law centre, which has been closed due to the changes in legal aid, contrasted the way local authorities deal with unrepresented young people with their response when they are up against professionals:

"I told [the young person] exactly what to do and who to speak to in the relevant department, who I had worked with over many years, and he got an absolutely appalling response. I couldn't believe that particular professional was responding in that way, because she always played it by the book but now I'm off it, she can do what she likes, and he was completely misguided, given unlawful instruction, and there was nothing I could do."

Just for Kids Law projects manager, Joel Carter, who carried out the research, said: "This study shows that some of the most vulnerable children and young people have been left in limbo by the 2013 legal aid cuts. They are unable to access the specialist legal advice they need, but out of their depth in trying to solve problems on their own. Very often local authorities will only provide services when they are forced to by legal action."

Failing children

The report also points to the failure of exceptional case funding as an adequate legal aid safety net for the young people most in need of legal representation.

National family law organisation Resolution has argued that this is one of the most serious flaws in the practical application of LASPO. The Children's Commissioner's Impact Assessment reports that only 57 cases have been granted exceptional funding, compared with the 3,700 the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) expected.

When LASPO was introduced, the MoJ estimated that up to 5 per cent of non-domestic violence financial provision and private law children cases, and up to 5 per cent of other private law family cases, could be expected to secure funding under the new exceptional scheme for excluded cases.

Jo Edwards, chair of Resolution, said: "Since the cuts to family legal aid were introduced, Resolution has consistently argued that they are hurting the most vulnerable people in society. This report validates our concerns, highlighting the difficulties faced by children and young people going through the justice system without the support of legal aid: from facing the courts without representation, to dealing with their parents involved in protracted battles over their care arrangements without proper legal support.

"The statistics from the commissioner's impact assessment show that the number of unrepresented parties in private family law cases has increased dramatically since the legal aid cuts. Resolution members have seen first-hand the damage this is doing to all parties involved in the family court process - delays, an escalation in conflict during cases and, in the worst cases, miscarriages of justice as people attempt to navigate a complex legal system on their own."

Edwards added: "Resolution believes that the bar has been set too high by the Lord Chancellor's exceptional funding guidance and that the Legal Aid Agency is taking an overly restrictive approach to granting funding or setting any precedents for funding.

"We call on the government, in light of the Children's Commissioner's findings, to review urgently the operation of exceptional case funding to ensure that the most vulnerable people in our justice system, including children and young people, are getting the legal support they need."

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Legal Aid Marriage & Civil partnership