Legal aid cuts set to fuel youth crime
7th November 2011
A group of leading charities has today (7th November) warned that planned cuts to civil legal aid will fuel youth crime and leave young victims of crime unprotected, calling on the Government to join up their civil and criminal justice policies.
In new research released today by the JustRights coalition, leading legal academic Professor Pascoe Pleasence reveals for the first time clear links between young people’s civil justice problems and crime.
Young victims of crime and young people at risk of offending are likely to be disproportionately hit by swingeing cuts to advice services. The research shows that as many as 55% of young people who had recently been arrested and 63% of young victims of crime had also experienced a civil justice problem.
Official Government figures, revealed after a Freedom of Information request, confirm that The Legal Aid, Sentencing & Punishment of Offenders Bill, due to enter the House of Lords later this month, will lead to 75,000 children and young people losing entitlement to civil legal aid each year. Included in these figures are over 25,000 social welfare cases relating to housing, debt, employment and welfare benefits – problems which are known to substantially increase the risk of re-offending, homelessness and mental health problems if left unresolved.
The cuts to legal aid come on top of the dismantling of Connexions and massive cuts to local voluntary sector youth advice services. They threaten to leave young people with nowhere to turn for advice and no legal representation if their cases reach a hearing.
JustRights is concerned that the Government has failed to fully analyse the knock-on costs for the criminal justice system resulting from the proposed cuts to civil legal aid. Although the Government’s own impact assessment identified that the proposals could lead to increased criminality, reduced social cohesion and increased spending for other Departments, it has refused to provide any costings.
The current cost of providing advice to the 25,840 children and young people who will lose entitlement to social welfare legal aid each year is less than £6m – equivalent to the cost of imprisoning just 42 young offenders. Direct costs to the Ministry of Justice itself would rise by more than this sum if just one in every 445 of those young people who are denied civil legal aid end up in prison as a result. JustRights believes this reveals a lack of coherence in the Government’s justice policies.
Barbara Rayment, Director of Youth Access, said:
“No sensible person would expect a child or young person to navigate alone a complex legal system that is designed for adults or to represent themselves in a court or tribunal when they are in a dispute with a powerful authority. Yet that is precisely the position that many highly vulnerable young people, often with special educational needs or mental health problems, will be put in by the cuts to youth advice services and legal aid. Withdrawing this protection is shameful.”
Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform said:
“Young people are not generally encouraged or helped to use the law or human rights to challenge the way they are treated or to protect themselves. The young people we represent are often surprised to find that the law can be used to protect them, rather than just punish and control them. Sometimes the very process of representing a child in prison can help a young person develop a sense of justice. Children and young people in trouble need legal aid to get the advice necessary to help them sort out their all too often chaotic lives. Short term savings strategies that put the public at risk do not represent sound policy and will actually cost more money in the long run.”
Mandy Wilkins, Young People’s Programme Manager at The Law Centres Federation and Co-Chair of JustRights, said:
“The dangers of disenfranchising a section of the youth population were highlighted recently in the riots across England. If ever there was a time for a joined up approach to the justice system, this is surely it. The Government would be failing in its duty of care if it didn’t fulfil its pledges to protect legal aid for the youngest and most vulnerable members of our society.”
JustRights is publishing two new reports today:
Heading for trouble? - A summary of new evidence on the role of advice services in preventing youth offending and the potential impact on crime of cuts to advice services
Civil Legal Problems: Young People, Social Exclusion and Crime– a research report by Professor Pascoe Pleasence
The reports show that:
· Disadvantaged young people’s unresolved civil justice problems frequently lead to them coming into danger from crime and anti-social behaviour, with significant numbers reporting fear, property damage, assault and harassment.
· Unresolved civil justice problems lead to violence against 9% of disadvantaged 18-24 year olds, at an average cost to the state of £255 per case.
· Young offenders and young victims of crime are far more likely than other young people to experience common civil justice problems relating to housing, debt and welfare benefits.
· Such problems, if left unresolved, are known to increase the risk of re-offending, but young people in trouble with the law are even less likely to obtain advice than other young people.
· Many young people who do get advice for their civil justice problems report improvements in their behaviour and in how safe they feel, as well as in the broader conditions that are likely to give rise to offending behaviour.
· Advice services may have an important contribution to make to crime reduction programmes.
· Cuts to youth advice services and proposed cuts to civil legal aid may lead to increased social unrest and crime.
Notes for Editors
For further information / interviews contact:
Sophie Willett 020 7241 7866
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
· 6,000 children under 18 and 69,000 young people aged 18-24 will lose entitlement to civil legal aid if the proposals contained in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill become law. The figures include 25,840 social welfare law cases, costing just £5.8m per year, including:
o 9,040 debt cases costing £2.1m
o 1,990 employment cases costing £0.5m
o 5,680 housing cases costing £1.4m
o 9,130 welfare benefits cases costing £1.8m.
(Source: data provided by the Ministry of Justice on 10/10/11 in response to a Freedom of Information request; based on 2009-10 closed cases)
· The average cost of imprisoning one young offender is £100,000 a year. In addition, the indirect costs to society incurred after release amount to £40,000 per ex-offender. (Source: Punishing Costs, New Economics Foundation, 2010.)
· Connexions services have been cut by £180m this year. In addition, 42% of voluntary sector youth advice services are at risk of closure this year. (Source: Youth Access survey)
3. For further information on the impact of the legal aid cuts on children and young people, see ‘Not Seen Not Heard’, JustRights’ recent joint report with Sound Off For Justice.