THE Government is to restore legal aid to separated migrant children in the UK, more than a year after ministers first agreed to reverse cuts to funding.
In 2013, as part of wider reform to the legal-aid system, the Government stopped separated and unaccompanied young people who had immigration issues from being able to access legal aid.
Last July, after a five-year legal battle led by the Children’s Society, the Ministry of Justice conceded an amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing, and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which would extend the scope of legal aid to unaccompanied migrant children in the UK.
Progress of the amendment through parliament has been delayed several times, however. The Bishop of Derby, the Rt Revd Libby Lane, recently wrote to the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland QC, asking “urgently” for the issue to be debated before the planned prorogation of Parliament (News, 6 September).
“In the meantime,” she wrote, “many children have continued to miss out on vital legal advice and support to secure their status and resolve their immigration issues. The urgent need to see progress on this amendment has taken on further importance with the roll-out of the EU Settlement Scheme and the end to free movement. There are an estimated 5000 looked-after children with EU nationalities in the care of the British state that need to secure their status.”
This week, Parliament voted to approve the legislation needed to make the change. Under the Legal Aid for Separated Children Order 2019, in non-asylum immigration and citizenship cases, legal aid will be granted to under 18s who are not in the care of a parent, guardian, or legal authority.
Previously, vulnerable children making such applications to remain in the UK could apply for legal aid only through the exceptional-case funding scheme.
The chief executive of the Children’s Society, Mark Russell, said that the move would “finally ensure this vulnerable group can resolve immigration issues and secure their citizenship, without the stress of applying for exceptional case funding or trying to navigate complex immigration rules and human rights law all alone. We look forward to working closely with the Ministry of Justice to ensure that affected children and the professionals supporting them know about this vital change.”
The Justice Minister, Wendy Morton, said: “These changes will mean migrant children who have been separated from their carers can access the vital legal support they need faster and more easily.” The Ministry of Justice had worked with the Children’s Society and other charities on the amendment and would continue to do so as it came into force, she said.
Bishop Lane was not available to comment.