The Refugee Council is delighted to hear the Ministry of Justice (MoJ)’s announcement that immigration matters for unaccompanied and separated children in care will be brought back into the scope of legal aid. This is a fantastic achievement for the Children’s Society – the charity that has settled their case against the Lord Chancellor – and represents an important forward step in the protection of the fundamental rights of vulnerable children.
What will this actually mean for unaccompanied and separated children?
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act of 2012 (known as LASPO), removed legal aid for immigration cases on children. This meant that children in the UK were no longer able to access the legal help and representation necessary to advocate effectively for their rights. The impact of this is that they can be in danger of being prevented from accessing even the basics – education, healthcare, support, and face deportation to another country. While these children may well have the support of social workers who have a duty to plan for the long-term future of a child, social workers are not allowed to assist children in making immigration applications.
That is why these children will need legal help to navigate the complex laws, processes and systems governing their circumstances, and financial support to pay for this legal help, in the form of legal aid. Though the Government introduced an Exceptional Cases funding regime (ECF) and a few grants for children to access in exceptional circumstances, evidence suggests these have not worked as adequate safeguards.
When will this amendment come into force?
There is still time before this change will come into force. A statutory instrument should be laid before Parliament by the end of this year and the Ministry of Justice has agreed to work with various external stakeholders to draft this.
In the interim, the Government has indicated that ECF for unaccompanied and separated children should be granted without the need for extensive details and representations, making the process of securing legal aid much quicker and easier.