The Children’s Society has warned that vulnerable migrant children who are in the UK alone are facing a punishing combination of cuts to help with legal costs and skyrocketing Home Office fees, as they struggle to resolve their complex immigration cases.
In a new report, the society said the introduction of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offender Act (LASPO) in 2013 denied unaccompanied children legal aid for non-asylum immigration cases, leaving them alone and struggling to pay for the expert legal advice they desperately need.
According to the charity’s report Cut off from Justice, those affected by the changes include unidentified victims of trafficking, children who are in local authority care after becoming separated from their families – and, in some cases, children born in the UK who may be able to claim British citizenship.
The report says that, without legal aid, children must find the money themselves, rely on services offering free immigration advice – or make a claim for Exceptional Case Funding, a “safety net” scheme which should make sure the most vulnerable in society can still get help with legal costs.
However, the report reveals that in the past four years, there has been a “massive” 50% reduction in the number of free legal services available for children’s immigration cases – and with one-third of the remaining services concentrated in London and the southeast, children are facing a postcode lottery when trying to find free immigration advice.
At the same time, the Exceptional Case Funding “safety net” is not working for lone migrant children, says the report. During 2015-2016, just 15 applications were made for children needing legal support for immigration cases, out of thousands expected. The Children’s Society says this handful of applications represents less than 1% of the 2,490 children who relied on legal aid in the final year before the cuts were implemented.
The charity fears that many children who should be eligible for Exceptional Case Funding are trapped in an impossible situation, unable to even attempt the complex and challenging application process without expert legal advice.
The charity adds that, even if a young person does get the legal help to make their claim, they still have to find a way to pay “eye-watering” Home Office administration fees, which can be as high as £2,300, with fees climbing sharply, including increases of up to 119% in the last four years.
With no other options, some children try to resolve their immigration issues on their own, making their chances of success much worse, says the society – whole others are at risk of exploitation as they try to find a way to pay the thousands of pounds of legal costs and application fees themselves.
The Children’s Society is calling on the government to reinstate legal aid for all unaccompanied and separated migrant children – and to always waive application fees and the costly immigration health surcharge in their immigration applications.
Policy Director at The Children’s Society, Sam Royston, said:
“Expecting extremely vulnerable children and young people to find their way through complex legal problems on their own is unreasonable and cruel.
“Cut off from crucial help with legal costs and with Home Office application fees soaring, vulnerable children are finding themselves in impossible situations, with nowhere left to turn. As they struggle to find a way to pay, they are at serious risk of exploitation.
“All children and young people in the UK should be kept safe and have equal access to justice, regardless of where they were born.
“The government must bring back access to legal aid – and waive its extortionate application fees for all migrant children who are here on their own.”
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