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Children in immigration tribunals 'may have to represent themselves'

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Vulnerable children are at risk of having to represent themselves in immigration tribunals because they no longer qualify for legal aid, according to a report by the Children’s Society.

Thousands of youngsters who have arrived in the UK alone are being denied access to the law and put in danger of exploitation and homelessness, the study – entitled Cut Off From Justice – warns.

Under the 2012 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO), entitlement to legal aid was removed as part of a £350m savings programme. It is still available for asylum cases.

There have been claims that children are already having to appear unrepresented in cases where they face deportation. Tribunals contacted by the Guardian in the past have said they would postpone such cases to ensure a lawyer acting on a pro bono – or voluntary – basis could provide legal assistance. The Ministry of Justice maintains immigration cases at tribunals do not normally require lawyers.

The Children’s Society says it has spoken to a 17-year-old boy who “was forced to represent himself before an immigration judge and a Home Office lawyer”.

The unidentified teenager, however, was appearing in an asylum case in which he did not qualify for legal aid for other reasons. “Whilst the exclusion of his case from legal aid support was not a consequence of LASPO, his experiences of the process highlight some relevant points,” the study states.

The boy was alone in an intimidating environment and unable to convey “the bigger picture about his need and wishes to remain in the UK,” the report adds. “The circumstances of separated and unaccompanied children’s immigration cases are far from straightforward.”

The Children’s Society has applied for a judicial review to challenge the justice secretary’s refusal to reinstate immigration legal aid for unaccompanied children following its removal under LASPO.

Decisions about what, if any, legal support children can obtain are being left to financially strapped councils and social workers who often lack the necessary expertise, according to the report. Only one local authority, it found, has a formal policy on what it should do to support children with legal services in the absence of legal aid.

“Decisions crucial to their lives are not being prioritised and are avoided until they hit crisis point – usually when children turn 18, which is when councils are no longer legally obliged to look after them,” the report says.

Matthew Reed, chief executive of the Children’s Society, said: “The government’s announcement that it will look again at legal aid is a vital opportunity to make sure that the thousands of vulnerable children in this country who are being denied a legal voice are once again given this critical support.

“Without legal aid, they are being denied the equal justice they deserve. This is putting many in danger and is harming their wellbeing and future opportunities. It is crucial the government restores this lifeline to all children who are here on their own so none of them are cut off from justice.”

An MoJ spokesperson said: “The majority of unaccompanied children applying for permission to remain in the UK will be seeking asylum, and are therefore able to apply for legal aid.

“Applications for non-asylum immigration cases are generally straightforward, so lawyers are not usually required.”

Source: The Guardian

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