Separated migrant children to be granted legal aid following NGO campaigning

Coram Children’s Legal Centre welcomes today’s announcement from the Ministry of Justice that immigration matters for unaccompanied and separated children in care will be brought back into the scope of legal aid.

We look forward to working with the Ministry of Justice to amend the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) and to make these children’s access to justice a reality.

The problem

Since the passage of the LASPO, CCLC has highlighted the negative impact of the removal of legal aid for immigration cases on children. Without access to legal help and representation children struggle to advocate effectively for their rights, leaving them at risk of being cut off from education, healthcare, support, and even facing deportation to another country.

Children are in the care of children’s services are particularly vulnerable.  The laws, processes and systems governing their circumstances are complex and while social workers have a duty to plan for the long-term future of a child in their care, they are rightly prohibited from assisting children in making immigration applications because immigration advice is heavily regulated.

In our recent report, ‘Rights without Remedies’, we estimated that there are several thousand children in local authority care where immigration is the primary issue, not asylum or trafficking. CCLC’s Migrant Children’s Project alone advised in the cases of 234 separated children and young people with an out-of-scope immigration issue last year. This advice casework formed the basis of a witness statement to a judicial review (brought by Islington Law Centre and the Children’s Society) of the cuts to legal aid for this group.

The MCP advised Raheem, a 19-year old care leaver from Jamaica, who came to the UK when he was seven with his parents. After a relationship breakdown, he was taken into care aged 15, and his leave to remain expired a year later. His social worker was aware of his immigration status, but did not do anything to resolve it before he turned 18. Aged 19 Raheem’s personal adviser contacted the MCP advice line to ask for help. At this point he was undocumented and had no right to work or claim benefits, and had no contact with his birth family. The local authority recognised their mistake and agreed to retrospectively pay for his legal representation. As he was no longer a looked after child and therefore no longer exempt, they also had to pay for his immigration fees, totalling £5,000.

Corporate parenting duties

Statutory guidance makes clear that local authorities must help children resolve their immigration status. However, until now that has involved paying for legal advice at private rates which are likely to be significantly more expensive than legal aid rates, resulting in a cost shift onto local authorities of an estimated £10 million a year. We estimated that the restoration of legal aid for all migrant children in care would still result in at least an estimated £4 million annual saving.

As Brexit looms, we have also raised concerns about the status of European national children in care many of whom might need legal advice at the earliest opportunity. This change will go some way to ensuring that vulnerable children do not fall through the gaps.

We have long urged the government to examine the impact on children’s rights of the legal aid changes, and are glad they have finally listened to NGOs supporting these children. CCLC welcomes the government’s statement that it will work with stakeholders on the amendment. We also hope that the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Education undertake a campaign to inform local authority front-line staff of the forthcoming changes, so that there is no delay for children in need of legal help. No child should be left without access to justice.

Rights without remedies: legal aid and access to justice for children and the executive summary are available here.

The Ministry of Justice statement is available here.