April 21, 2011

Why Legal Aid cuts will put vulnerable children at risk

Swingeing cuts to Legal Aid will threaten to put vulnerable children at greater risk. You’ve probably heard in the news that the Government is planning to dramatically reduce access to Legal Aid in civil cases in England and Wales, as part of its campaign of public sector cost cutting.

The Ministry of Justice aims to cut the Legal Aid bill by £350m a year by 2015, saying it must come to terms with “tough choices”. When the plans were unveiled in November, Justice Secretary Ken Clarke said he wanted to avoid unnecessary court cases, proposing a more “targeted civil and family scheme which will discourage people from resorting to lawyers whenever they face a problem.”

On the face of it, this might sound like common sense – the vilification of Legal Aid in the tabloid press is usually on a par with the fury reserved for other symbols of the UK’s moral decline, such as bogus asylum seekers. Yet many experienced family and child law experts, our team here at Jones Myers included, are extremely worried that the reductions could have dire consequences for children and young people for whom Legal Aid provides a vital safety net.

Not least is an expected surge in child abductions, as desperate parents take matters into their own hands to ensure they do not lose contact with their children in the absence of the Legal Aid that would enable family cases to be settled safely and fairly.

The Children’s Commissioner herself, Dr Maggie Atkinson, has said the cuts will “deprive children of the right to be heard”, while the Bar Council, the governing body for barristers, claims the proposals will have a “devastating effect on access for justice” and that they will “cost more than they save” as courts become gridlocked with DIY litigants unable to afford legal representation.

Added to this, the Government’s prediction that the planned cuts might affect some 500,000 people has been thrown into doubt by campaign body the Legal Action Group (LAG), which calculates that the true figure for those who will lose access to Legal Aid amounts to more than 650,000.

While cuts undoubtedly have to be made, they must not happen at the expense of basic social justice. The most vulnerable people in our society should not be put at risk for the sake of a cost cutting exercise which already seems to be littered with grave and unintended consequences for children and their families. Perhaps the justice secretary and his team should think again before going ahead with this ill-conceived cut.

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