The Ministry of Justice has in the last few weeks quietly backed down on the promise of a full review on the effects of legal aid cuts on children and young people. In September 2014, following a scathing report on the LASPO legal aid changes by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, justice minister Simon Hughes spoke in urgent terms about his concern over legal aid cuts. ‘I have asked the Ministry of Justice to review the findings of this report’, he announced in a press release, admitting that cuts ‘should not be at the expense of the rights of children.’
His statement was widely interpreted as one of assertiveness with their Conservative coalition partners on the eve of his party’s conference, and made it clear that any ‘gaps’ in the new system would be ‘addressed urgently’.
But five months later, Hughes’ review has been quietly swept under the carpet, despite data indicating that such ‘gaps’ in the new system may be rather wider than anticipated.
On 5th February Andy Slaughter MP, the Labour shadow justice spokesperson, asked the Secretary of State for Justice in a written parliamentary question whether his Department was conducting a review of children’s access to legal aid. Shailesh Vara MP, the Conservative justice minister with responsibility for legal aid, replied: ‘The MoJ is not currently conducting a specific review of children’s access to legal aid…. Ministers have considered, and will continue to consider, all representations and evidence about the impact of LASPO on young people. The Government plans to undertake a post-implementation review of the legal aid provisions within the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 within 3-5 years of implementation.’ In effect, this means that a review could be as distant as 2018.
Suspicions have been raised that the abandonment of Hughes’ review was forced to avoid embarrassment to the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, ahead of the General Election – Ian Dunt’s article on this matter is well worth a read. When I asked a Liberal Democrat All Party Parliamentary Group meeting for young people about the issue, party president Baroness Sal Brinton certainly implied that compromises had been made for their coalition partners.
But research continues to highlight that legal aid cuts are having a disproportionately detrimental impact on children and young people in general, and, even more worryingly, children and young people who are considered to belong to ‘vulnerable’ groups in particular. JustRights, a coalition of charities campaigning for fair access to advice, advocacy and legal representation for children and young people, say that as whole areas of civil issues have been withdrawn from the realms of legal aid, insufficient exceptions have been made for children and young people, and that this is leaving them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
Ministers have been forced by parliamentary questions to provide some new data on use of civil legal aid – and it makes for grim reading for young people like me.
The number of social welfare legal cases where children received legal aid has fallen 65% in four years, and last year was 45% lower even than had been anticipated by the MoJ before the LASPO changes were implemented. A similar pattern was revealed for immigration and asylum cases.
Meanwhile, figures released to parliament on the legal aid Exceptional Case Funding scheme – put in place, supposedly, as a safety net for the most vulnerable – show that only 145 children and young people even applied for exceptional funding between October 2013 and September 2014, with just 8% of these applications being granted. Only three children under the age of 18 in the entire 12 month period were granted exceptional funding, and the figures for 18-24 year olds, who often face complex social issues, are also deeply concerning.
Mr Vara has assured MPs that the age of a prospective recipient will always be taken into account when considering exceptional legal aid applications – but JustRights argues that the figures show this simply isn’t happening.
Worryingly, studies have also shown that young people requiring legal aid are likely to be from disadvantaged or troubled social backgrounds, with an estimated 80% of young people facing civil legal problems considered ‘vulnerable’, facing issues including homelessness and mental illness. JustRights continue to point out that withdrawing legal aid for these groups of young people is a counterproductive method of intended cost cutting, highlighting the dramatic knock on costs of leaving young people facing social issues without advice. Each young person left to cope on their own will cost local public services £13,000 on average.
Young people spoken to by Youth Access and JustRights have expressed outrage at the cuts. 17-year-old Neha said ‘It makes me feel disgusted why they are cutting it. It makes no sense, it’s causing damage to our future society’. Young people have time and again highlighted that they feel they need free access to lawyers who specialise in working with them, and emphasised the need for legal advice to be available in a comfortable, young person-friendly environment. These are some of the demands of our youth led campaign Make Our Rights Reality.
Our manifesto, created by hundreds of young people, emphasises, in young people’s own words, how important legal advice can be to vulnerable young people’s lives. JustRights and Youth Access call for the government to listen to the voices of young people – starting by reading our manifesto!
We feel the review we were promised by Simon Hughes is absolutely necessary, not in 2-3 years, but now! If this review were to take place, we feel there would be evidence beyond any doubt available to the Government that in order to meet the rights and needs of children and young people, their access to free legal advice and representation must be guaranteed.
- Support Make Our Rights Reality, read the manifesto here, and listen to young people’s voices in our campaign video.
- Sign the Make Our Rights Reality petition here.
- For more information on what young people think about legal aid cuts and what they want from lawyers, read our mini briefing.
Joe is a campaign assistant at Youth Access working with JustRights on the Make Our Rights Reality campaign