Children’s justice threatened by dodgy Government figures
15th April 2012
Government risks further division on Legal Aid Bill as new official figures contradict Ministers’ claims that children have been protected from cuts.
New figures released by the Ministry of Justice show that 13% of all children under 18 who currently receive help with legal costs will lose out under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Bill, due to return to the House of Commons on Tuesday 17th April after a record number of defeats in the House of Lords.
The figures, released to JustRights following a Freedom of Information request, show that around 6,000 vulnerable children will lose access to legal aid each year and contradict repeated government claims that children’s rights have been protected under the Bill. Arguably misleading statements from Ministers on the subject have included the following:
· Lord McNally: “As far as possible, our intention is that, where children are involved, legal aid will still be provided.”
· Jonathan Djanogly: “Legal aid will remain for children in almost all cases….”
· Ken Clarke: “We are not taking legal aid away from women and children, we are taking it away from lawyers.”
Commenting on the new figures, James Kenrick, co-chair of JustRights, said:
“After months of disingenuous claims by Government Ministers, these new figures reveal the true, shocking extent of the impact on children of this appalling piece of legislation. The Government has the chance on Tuesday to finally make good its claim that it wants to protect children from cuts to legal aid. If it does not, we now know that thousands of highly vulnerable children, often with little or no parental support, will be left to navigate alone a legal system which is daunting enough even for competent adults.”
As part of a record 11 defeats on the LASPO Bill for the Government in the House of Lords, an amendment led by Paralympian Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, and supported by several Liberal Democrat and Conservative peers, was passed which would protect legal aid for all children under the age of 18. The Ministry of Justice’s new figures include an estimate that the amendment would cost £5m-£6m per year.
The embattled Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, has signalled the Government’s intention to overturn all 11 amendments when the Bill returns to the House of Commons on Tuesday, but is coming under increasingly intense pressure from a broad coalition of children’s charities, women’s groups, lawyers and Peers from his own party to retain protection for children.
The issue has potential to severely embarrass the Government, which has maintained the line that it is protecting front-line services for the most vulnerable people. There is known to be widespread discomfort amongst Liberal Democrats, whose current youth policy includes a commitment to improve young people’s access to legal advice and who are already engaged in arguments within the coalition on other civil liberties issues.
Legal experts say the Bill puts the government in breach of its international legal obligations to children (e.g. those under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child).
The Government’s position also appears out of step with public opinion. A poll conducted by GfK NOP in January 2012 for Legal Action Group found that cases that impact on children were the public’s top priority for state funding on legal aid.
James Kenrick said:
“We now know that protecting the fundamental right of access to justice for these 6,000 children would cost just £5m. This is equivalent to the cost of just a handful of the high cost cases that the Government will continue funding for criminals and could be funded through using rich criminals’ frozen assets to cover their legal aid costs.”
Notes for Editors
1. JustRights is a coalition, founded by the Law Centres Federation, Youth Access, the Howard League for Penal Reform and Children’s Rights Alliance for England, that campaigns for all children and young people to have ready access to high quality independent legal advice and representation whenever they may need it in the course of their lives. www.justrights.org.uk
2. Read our briefing for MPs and media on the amendment protecting children’s legal aid that was passed by the House of Lords on 27th March 2012:
3. For more information, case studies and access to high profile interviewees, please call:
James Kenrick, 07535 344881; 020 8677 4683 (Sunday); 020 8772 9900 (Monday) email@example.com
Mandy Wilkins, 07974 227332; firstname.lastname@example.org
 Answer to a Parliamentary question from Lord Harrison on 7th July 2011.
 Letter to The Times, 27th July 2011
 Speaking on the Today programme on Radio 4 on 5th March 2012: http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_9702000/9702375.stm
 Baroness Walmsley, the Lib Dem’s spokesperson on children in the House of Lords, warned the Minister, Lord McNally, in Parliament recently that the Government risks being taken to court if it removes access to legal help for children.
“Reflecting the public’s main priority of protecting children, custody cases and other legal issues that impact directly on children should continue to be covered by the legal aid system.” Social welfare law: what the public wants from civil legal aid