2019 commemorates the 70th anniversary of Britain’s modern system of Legal Aid, inaugurated by Clement Attlee’s Labour Government in the wake of World War Two. This element of the ‘cradle to grave’ welfare system, based on the Beveridge Report recommendations, was to ensure that all had adequate access to fair representation in the United Kingdom’s criminal courts.
However, on the 1st April 2013, Legal Aid provisions were significantly streamlined in accordance with Government plans to save £350 million annually. This jeopardised the legal position of many vulnerable people nationwide, now lacking guaranteed access to means for support and representation. This applied to separated migrant children, who upon turning eighteen face harsh immigration legislation, leaving them particularly vulnerable to falling into destitution or homelessness. Granted, Exceptional Case Funding exists, which separated children could apply for and are normally entitled to in relation to immigration and citizenship matters. Exceptional Case Funding is for cases that do not qualify for the criteria required to receive Legal Aid, but if the government were to fail to provide funding it would qualify as a violation of the Act of Human Rights.
Despite the existence of this safety net, the process was far from ideal as applications for Exceptional Case Funding involve complex laws and procedures. This tiresome and stressful process could often exacerbate the situation of the separated children. Furthermore, social workers in charge of the children’s affairs are often greatly limited in how they can assist with the legal processes, due to heavy legal regulations on immigration advice. Another huge contemporary problem is the looming uncertainty of Brexit and the implications it could have on the legal status of European nationals, especially vulnerable children. Jeremy Corbyn has even claimed that Brexit could lead to a situation like “Windrush on steroids”.
For these reasons, NGO’s have been campaigning for years to have the scope of legal aid extended to separated children. Last year, the Children’s Society was successful in the Judicial Review they brought against the Government, resulting in the restoration of Legal Aid for separated children from 25th October 2019. Hence, from this date onward, separated children will have direct access to Legal Aid when seeking to regularise their United Kingdom citizenship status, instead of the burden of navigating through complex laws to gain access to funds through Exceptional Case Funding.
Maxwell Goddard (Student Volunteer)