Children unable to resolve complex legal problems, to do with
education, immigration and family contact, because of lack of access to specialist advice.
The award winning charity Just for Kids Law has conducted research for the Office of the Children’s Commissioner to assess the impact of the changes to legal aid introduced by the 2013 Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act.
– Young people did not know the problem they faced was a legal matter, capable of being resolved by recourse to law.
– Interviewees 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 interviewees did not know about legal aid.
– Without legal advice, children and young people were unable to resolve their problems, despite trying repeatedly to do so.
– Being a litigant in person made it less likely a young person would be able to resolve their problem, and going it alone had a bad effect on their wellbeing. They spoke of feelings of hopelessness, detachment and despair.
– There was evidence of some local authorities taking advantage of young people’s lack of knowledge of their rights to avoid providing statutory services.
– Many of the problems young people faced were difficult to resolve even with expert legal advice, meaning they would have almost no chance of solving them on their own.
The findings were based on interviews with 28 young people, aged 12-22, who were being supported by Just for Kids Law.
– Becky, a homeless 17 year old, who had been diagnosed with MS at age 14. She had been seriously abused by her mother, including being burnt with an iron and slashed across the face with keys. At 16, social services unlawfully refused to house her, and it was only several months later that a college welfare officer advised her it was a legal matter and she was able to get specialist help. With legal representation the local authority accepted that she should be a ‘looked after child’, with her own dedicated social worker, and a duty to house and look after her.
– A homeless 17 year old seeking help from social services was called ‘a fraud’ by social services, and had to look up the meaning of the word in a dictionary. She was distraught to discover she was being accused of lying and without legal support found it difficult to challenge the accusations against her: ‘Social workers wouldn’t even believe my mum died, they just didn’t want to believe anything,’ she told researchers.
The researchers also conducted focus groups involving professionals.
One solicitor from a law centre, which had closed because of the legal aid changes, contrasted the way local authorities deal with unrepresented young people, compared with their response when they are up against professionals.
‘I told [the young person] exactly what to do and who to speak to in the relevant department, who I had worked with over many years, and he got an absolutely appalling response. I couldn’t believe that particular professional was responding in that way, because she always played it by the book but now I’m off it, she can do what she likes, and he was completely misguided, given unlawful instruction, and there was nothing I could do.’
Joel Carter, Just for Kids Law projects manager, who carried out the research, said:
‘This study shows that some of the most vulnerable children and young people have been left in limbo by the 2013 legal aid cuts. They are unable to access the specialist legal advice they need, but out of their depth in trying to solve problems on their own. Very often local authorities will only provide services when they are forced to by legal action.’
For more information, contact:
Fiona Bawdon, Just for Kids Law; Fiona.email@example.com; 07740 644474; 020 3174 2279.
NOTES TO EDITORS:
1. Just for Kids Law is an award-winning charity which provides legal and other support to young people in difficulties with the law, at home, and at school. www.justforkidslaw.org
2. The research was commissioned by the Office for the Children’s Commissioner to inform its production of a Child Rights Impact Assessment.
3. The research was conducted over a three-month period, between February and April 2014. It consisted of 19 in-depth interviews with young people aged 12-22, and a focus group of nine young people; plus 11 legal and non-legal professionals who work with young people, interviewed in a focus group (participants included solicitors, youth advocates, youth caseworkers, etc)
4. A copy of the full Just for Kids Law research is available to download here