“Ministers keep using the mantra that their proposals are to protect the most vulnerable when, quite obviously, they are the exact opposite. If implemented their measures would, far from protecting the most vulnerable, directly harm them. Whatever they do in the end, Her Majesty’s Government should stop this 1984 Orwellian-type misuse of language.” – Lord Bach, discussing the Legal Aid Bill.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s analysis in 2012 warned that reducing the scope of legal aid in a substantial number of areas in civil and family law will create serious practical barriers to access to justice, potentially in breach of Article 6(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
The cuts to the civil legal aid budget, which came in to effect from April 2013, mean many cases, including those about debt, private family law, employment, welfare benefits, clinical negligence and housing problems are no longer eligible for funding.
This is at a time when the Government have implemented other radical, controversial and contentious cuts to health, education and welfare, and it is no coincidence that the legal aid Bill will curtail justice for those with legitimate needs at a time when draconian Tory policies such as the bedroom tax will most likely result in a massive increase of numbers of people needing and seeking redress.
This will mean the compounding of effects of other fundamental human rights breaches, legally unchecked, because of the profound impact of multiple, grossly unfair and unjust Tory-led policies. Each policy hitting the same vulnerable citizens, to their detriment, over and over.
“Children are being denied justice by legal cuts, and rights guaranteed by UN conventions are being breached because children are unable to navigate complex procedures unaided,” says children’s commissioner, Maggie Atkinson.
A report informed by evidence collected by the charity Just for Kids Law, which was commissioned to carry out research for the Children’s Commission, concludes that legitimate claims for housing, welfare and other cases are being abandoned and children overawed by officials are often unable to fight their way through hostile bureaucracies. Vulnerable teenagers are being deprived of justice because cuts to legal aid are preventing them from accessing representation.
Criticism of the impact of changes to legal aid – which cuts £350m from the civil legal aid budget, have been ongoing, but coming from an official body and focusing on the adverse effects it is having children it is likely to inflict greater political embarrassment.
“Behind the evidence in our research are countless heartrending stories of children and vulnerable young adults whose lives have been seriously affected by their inability to access legal representation,” Atkinson said. “This means, in effect, that they cannot seek, let alone receive, justice. We should not expect children and young adults to face the complexities of the legal system on their own. These systems are daunting enough for adults, let alone vulnerable children and young people.”
“The system is so difficult to navigate that it leads to people having no legal representation. That in turn can prevent decision-makers making decisions properly, as well as stopping individuals obtaining the justice they need … Short-term savings to one part of the legal system – legal aid – are simply shifting costs to another, because judges direct that representation has to be funded.”
Furthermore, an “exceptional case” funding system created by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to help those whose human rights are at risk is not working, the report by the children’s commissioner adds: “Only 57 grants were provided in its first year, rather than the 3,700 the MoJ had expected, due to the complexity and strict criteria applied to the system.”
It’s very dangerous to allow the State to decide which cases constitute the most need. In a free, democratic and fair Society, each and every single individual has equal legal worth and entitlement to opportunity to bring about legal justice. The Government choosing which cases are most “worthwhile” undermines this very premise of legal equality which is so fundamental to the notion of liberty. Everybody has a right to take any grievances they have, which have invoked legal ramifications, to court. Everybody ought to have an absolute, inalienable right to free and fair trial in a so-called free, democratic and liberal country.
Rights contained within the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), a treaty Britain has ratified, have been infringed, the report states. They include the right to be heard, the right for children not to be separated from parents and that their interests be given primary consideration.
“We believe that urgent review and reform is needed in order to ensure that the legal aid system can adequately protect the rights of children and young people and that the government’s obligations under the UNCRC are met.”
Jo Edwards, chair of the family law organisation 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.”
Laura Janes, of The Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “This important report echoes my experience of the problems young people in conflict with the law face. So many young people see the law as something that is there to punish them rather than a potential solution to the problems they face.
This means that children and young people are disadvantaged from the outset and require additional support to access and then make the best use of the law. The blanket application of legal aid cuts across the board means that children and young people, who do not even know about their legal rights or the existence of legal aid, have been doubly affected.”
Thanks to Robert Livingstone