How the Lib Dems broke their promise on legal aid
Last autumn, just before the Liberal Democrat annual conference, Simon Hughes promised a review into children's access to justice. The justice minister said he was concerned about the impact of legal aid on children and young people, especially after an extremely critical children's commission report found they were losing their rights under UN conventions because of the coalition's spending cuts.
The review never happened. As justice minister Shailesh Vara admitted recently:
"The MoJ is not currently conducting a specific review of children's access to legal aid."
The Lib Dems insist that even though a formal review with bells and whistles was not started, there is an ongoing process checking what's happening on an ongoing basis.
But you get a very different story from those attending meetings with the MoJ, who say the department persuaded Hughes there were no grounds for a review into children's access to legal aid.
A source says:
"Hughes announced it on the eve of the Lib Dem conference so he had something to say, but there's no support for it within the department.
"They haven't done anything. They say they persuaded Hughes team it can be looked at when they look at a general post-implementation review of legal aid cuts in general. That'll be sometimes next year at the earliest.
"Clearly this was political. If issues had been identified it would have been embarrassing for the Tories and Chris Grayling."
Without Hughes' review of the impact on children's access to justice we don't have clear data on how many children have been left to fend from themselves in legal disputes over immigration, or housing, or education – or any of the other areas where legal aid has now been removed.
But we do know that the information coming from ministers is unreliable. Earlier this month Hughes answered a parliamentary question from shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter with the words:
"Following the reforms to civil legal aid, funding remains available in around 95% of cases where a child or young person is the applicant."
But this seems a very positive assessment given the data the MoJ released under freedom of information requests from JustRights, a coalition of charities campaigning for fair access to legal representation for children, and The Children's Society. Before the reforms had even been implemented, the department revealed that it expected 14% of all under-18 civil cases and 56% of cases involving 18-24-year-olds to be outside the scope of legal aid. Perhaps things worked out much more successfully than expected. We'll never know, because the MoJ stamped on the review.
We don't know how many children have been denied access to justice. Many of them will not even have known that a legal solution was available. It is like trying to assess an absence. But experts warn of a decrease in the use of legal aid by children and young people in all areas apart from family law. They're particularly concerned about children living independently from parents and facing homelessness, debt, or benefit cuts. JustRights says it is very concerned about exploitation and abuse.
Maggie Atkinson, the children’s commissioner for England, found legitimate claims for housing, welfare and other cases were being abandoned as children were unable to take on vastly more confident officials.
"Behind the evidence in our research are countless heartrending 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. We should not expect children and young adults to face the complexities of the legal system on their own. These systems are daunting enough for adults, let alone vulnerable children and young people."
The MoJ insists it has put in place safety nets. But these assurances are also weak.
It's own extremely modest predictions of how many cases would qualify for the Exceptional Case Funding scheme put the number at 847 children and 4,888 young adults per year.
But recent data shows only 50 children and 95 young adults applied for Exceptional Case Funding in between October 2013 and September 2014. Of these 145 applications, just 12 were granted, including just three for children under 18.
To all intents and purposes, the safety net does not exist. The data provided by the MoJ is not reliable. And any attempt at a review of what is happening has been stamped out.