Published: 1st October 2014
The children's commissioner for England, Maggie Atkinson, has published a new report which expresses her concerns that children and young people are being denied justice due to the removal of legal aid, leaving them vulnerable and without proper legal representation.
The report, entitled 'Child Rights Impact Assessment on Legal Aid' highlights that certain UN Convention rights have been breached with the removal of legal aid, such as the 'the right for children not to be separated from parents', 'the right to be heard' and 'the right to have 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", the report said.
An increasing number of child welfare and housing cases have been discarded as young people struggle with the complexities of the legal system without professional representation, often overwhelming them as they try and fight their way through 'hostile bureaucracies'.
Maggie Atkinson said, "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. This means, in effect, that they cannot seek, let alone receive, justice."
She added, "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."
This is the latest in a series of public criticisms towards the removal of legal aid from the family law courts.
Resolution, the national organisation for family lawyers have also spoken out on the impact legal aid cuts are having on the family courts.
Chair of Resolution, Jo Edwards said, "Since the cuts to family legal aid were introduced, Resolution has consistently argued that they are hurting the most vulnerable people in society."
On the recent report from Maggie Atkinson, Jo said, "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."
K J Smith Solicitors reported in June that a number of magistrates have issued a warning that legal aid cuts is penalising single parent and low income families, creating an unfair divide between those who can afford legal representation and those who can't.
"Savings in legal aid costs on family cases disadvantages those people unable to afford lawyers, and risks injustice for children," said the Chair of the Magistrates’ Association’s Family Courts Committee.
In another previous blog, we also reported that the courts in England and Wales are experiencing severe delays, due to the high number of people representing themselves in court due to legal aid cuts.
The Ministry of Justice official figures showed that over 50% of all parties involved in a family law case are now doing so without the use of a solicitor or any form of legal representation.
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