Legal reforms "will deny thousands of children access to justice"

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Legal reforms "will deny thousands of children access to justice"

17th April 2012

New figures obtained by a child rights group have revealed that thousands of children could lose access to legal aid if the government proceeds with controversial reform plans.

Mark McGhee, an expert in human rights and community care law with Fentons Solicitors LLP, said the data obtained by JustRights illustrates that the proposed changes would deny 6,000 children access to the justice they deserve.

“The group has used a series of Freedom of Information requests to obtain the figures from the government, and when they analysed the data they found that 13 per cent of children who currently receive help with legal aid costs would lose it if the reforms went ahead,” said Mark, a partner with the firm. “That’s 6,000 children who will immediately be unable to pursue justice.”

The controversial Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (LASPO) will shortly return to the House of Commons after a string of defeats in the House of Lords. The proposals include removing whole areas of law from the legal aid system as part of plans to reduce the Ministry of Justice's budget by £350m and ‘speed up’ the system.

“But by ‘speeding-up’ the system as they put it, the plans risk simply leaving behind some of the most vulnerable people in our society who were – quite rightly - expecting their government to help them in their own pursuit of justice,” said Mark. “Women victims of domestic violence and disabled people pursuing benefits cases will no longer qualify for legal aid, whilst children involved in immigration issues, benefits cases, housing and other social-welfare cases will all lose their access as well.

“In the wake of the proposals put forward in Lord Jackson’s report - which will either exclude many clients entirely from pursuing a claim or require them to contribute to their costs, thus reducing their compensation, in some cases substantially - this is yet another attack on genuine claimants and their ability to seek compensation,” said Mark.

“Only recently I have been involved in a harrowing case where a foster child with learning difficulties was removed from the family home by Social Services without any reason - and in violation of both his and his family’s human rights. That case would have been impossible to pursue were it not for the provision of legal aid and the availability of a conditional fee agreement. We would simply not have been able to successfully pursue their case, and there are literally thousands of others who will be denied a similar route to justice if the proposals in the LASPO bill are implemented.”

Although Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke has signalled the government's intention to overturn all of the 11 amendments when the bill returns to the Commons, he continues to come under increasing pressure from a broad coalition of children's charities, women's groups, lawyers and other politicians to retain protection for children.

“The massive tide of opposition to the plans is a clear indicator that the government has made a number of fundamental mistakes and wrong assumptions with their planned reforms,” said Mark. “It is now time for the Ministry of Justice to take a long hard look at the proposals and start listening to the people affected by them, rather than the big businesses and insurance companies who stand to gain the most if they go ahead.”

Read more at: BBC News