The ‘human cost’ of last year’s legal aid cuts was ‘clearly immense’, said the Children’s Commissioner for England this week. Maggie Atkinson was speaking at the launch of a report on impact of the LASPO cuts on the young and vulnerable.
According to the research (here) in seven out of ten of private family cases one or both parties did not have legal representation post-LASPO compared with 54% before. In the family courts the number of private cases where both parties were represented fell from 46% to 30%; the number where neither party was represented rose from 12% to 22%; and where one party was unrepresented rose from 42% to 48%. Only 57 cases were granted exceptional funding compared to the 3,700 the Ministry of Justice expected.
‘The human cost of legal aid reforms is clearly immense. Behind the evidence in our research are countless heart rending 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.’
Maggie Atkinson, Children’s Commissioner for England
Atkinson argued that ‘some short term savings’ to one part of the legal system, legal aid, were ‘simply shifting costs to another’ as judges directed that representation had to be funded. The research highlighted the fact that many young people did not know their legal rights, nor of the existence of legal aid. Laura Jones, legal co-director of the Howard League for Penal Reform and co-chair of JustRights, called on the Ministry of Justice to ‘take immediate steps to ensure information and free advice and representation to all young people to redress the imbalance’.
‘This study shows that some of the most vulnerable children and young people have been left in limbo by the 2013 legal aid cuts,’ commented Joel Carter, Just for Kids Law’s projects manager, who carried out the research. ‘They are unable to access the specialist legal advice they need, but are out of their depth in trying to solve problems on their own.’ The research drew on on interviews with 28 young people helped by the legal charity. Themes that emerged from those interviews were that young people did not know the problem they faced was a legal matter; they only found out their problem was a legal matter by chance, sometimes years later (over half the interviewees had become homeless by the time they found specialist help); most did not know about legal aid; and, without legal advice, young people were unable to resolve their problems.
The report revealed that some local authorities exploited the lack of knowledge of young people about rights in order to avoid providing statutory services. This was reflected in the experience of Becky, a homeless 17 year old diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at 14 years who was eventually accepted as being a ‘looked after child’ but only after she received specialist help – see below – see end.
‘The point of legal aid is to help you and I cannot afford to use a lawyer but I have the right to have a lawyer. When organisations like social services don’t treat you right, what you gonna do?’
Being a litigant in person made it ‘less likely a young person would be able to resolve their problem’ and had ‘a bad effect on their well-being’, according to the charity. Interviewees spoke of ‘feelings of hopelessness, detachment and despair’. ‘Our members have seen first-hand the damage this is doing to all parties involved in the family court process – delays, an escalation in conflict during cases and, in the worst cases, miscarriages of justice as people attempt to navigate a complex legal system on their own,’ commented Jo Edwards, chair of the family lawyers’ group Resolution. Edwards also called on the government to ‘review urgently’ the ‘restrictive’ approach being taken by the Legal Aid Agency to exceptional case funding.
The Howard League’s Laura Jones encouraged young people to see the law as a ‘potential solution to the problems they face’, but stated that the cuts prevent the law from being a solution.
Case study: Becky
Becky’s relationship with her mother, whom she lived alone, became difficult by the time she was 11 years old. She first approached social services for help at the age of 14, before eventually returning home when they refused to take her into care. At the age of 14, Becky was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and, when she was 15, Becky learned that her father had passed away. Becky’s relationship with her mother broke down completely when she was 15. Becky was burnt with an iron and her mother slashed her across the face with keys.
Becky felt she no longer had a choice but to leave home and she presented to social services as homeless on her sixteenth birthday. Becky was informed that social services could not help and, when she refused to leave their offices, she was advised to attend the local authority’s advice centre for young people. She attended this centre and a referral was made to the local authority housing department. Becky would later learn that, as a 16 year old presenting as homeless to social services, this treatment was unlawful.
Unable to return to her mother’s house, Becky ‘sofa surfed’. Her mother withheld Becky’s passport and birth certificate. After two months, Becky was placed in accommodation through the housing department. She was still unaware that this could be a legal matter when she finally sought help. Her health had deteriorated so drastically that Becky visited the college welfare officer to ask for support. He advised Becky to seek legal advice.
With the support of an advocate, and still aged 16, Becky requested to be taken into the care of social services as a looked after child, under Section 20. Despite several assessments being completed by social services, their position was maintained and Becky was not accepted as a looked after child. Becky’s advocate referred the case to a community care solicitor, funded through legal aid, who issued judicial review proceedings. This was contested for a number of months before Becky was granted full looked after child status under Section 20. Now, at the age of 17, Becky is accommodated by the local authority in a placement that meets her needs and has support to help her manage the impact of her condition.