Since child separation has come into sharp focus in the light of the UK’s reconsideration of its hostile environment policy, the Justice Minister, Lucy Frazer QC MP, confirmed on 12 July 2018 that immigration matters concerning unaccompanied and separated children will be brought within the scope of legal aid.
During the past year, the UK government has been slowly acknowledging the devastating effect the policy has on individuals and families, particularly children, considering they have already been hit by rocketing Home Office fees. Currently, legal aid is available for all asylum and detention cases for all age groups. However, other immigration matters, particularly those involving children, are available exclusively through the Exceptional Case Funding (ECF) scheme to ensure legal aid is “accessible in all cases where there is a risk of breach of human rights”. However, the catch-22 – and the irony – of this scheme is that it involves completing complex applications requiring legal assistance a potential applicant cannot afford. Amnesty International in its report ‘Cuts that hurt: the impact of legal aid cuts in England’ notes that applying through the ECF is particularly time-consuming and costly where the Right to Family Life under Article 8 of the ECHR is concerned. As a result, the ECF cannot be taken advantage of by separated and vulnerable immigrant children – one of the most marginalised sections of society. In fact, the current system does more than just strip children of the right to access to justice: it puts them at risk of exploitation, sexual abuse, and homelessness because their immigration status is so unstable.
The new amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) will create a genuine safety net for marginalised children whose cases would not otherwise be heard. This change has become the culmination of five-year long judicial review proceedings between the UK government and the Children’s Society, who set out to highlight the impact of current immigration laws on immigrant children. The Society pointed out that “around 15,000 vulnerable migrant children who are alone in the UK are not getting the legal help they desperately need” and that forcing “vulnerable children and young people to find their way through complex legal problems on their own is unreasonable and cruel”.
The Justice Minister has confirmed that the LASPO will be amended soon after discussion across government and with external stakeholders.
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