Legal aid cuts have made it 'harder and more onerous' for foreign national children who have lived in the UK for several years to secure permanent residency, according to a rights charity today.
Coram Children's Legal Centre's latest publication, This is my home, states that in 2012, an estimated 120,000 'undocumented' children were in the UK; 65,000 were born in the UK. Many, confused about their legal status, address their immigration status only when forced to by another 'crisis point', such as being separated from their family, losing their home, or when they try to go to college or claim employment rights.
The report states that progressing their case, or taking positive steps, will depend on having reliable legal advice. However, 'making a successful application with the necessary evidence will be impossible without legal assistance, which is scarce in an environment where no publicly-funded advice and representation for immigration cases is available'.
Even where an individual is able to get representation, the charity says legal advisers are 'frequently not child-focused and fail to provide information in an accessible way'. Cuts in legal aid mean expertise has been lost because many firms have opted to focuse more on fee-paying clients, the charity says.
The centre's Migrant Children's Project, which runs an outreach advice service in the London boroughs of Hackney and Haringey, advised 313 clients in 2016-17. The charity says at least 65% would have been eligible for legal aid prior to the cuts in scope introduced in April 2013 by the Legal Aid, Sentending and Punishment of Offenders Act. Where the project secured exceptional case funding (ECF) under the act, in 25% of cases it took over a month to find a solicitor.
Practitioners face difficulties obtaining sufficient instructions and evidence for ECF applications, the charity says. 'In addition, it is very difficult to explain the process to a child client and it may be in their interests to pursue funding via any other available avenues, such as from the local authority if they are looked after,' the report states.
The report recommends an urgent review of children and young people's needs for legal services as well as the reinstatement of legal aid for separated children's immigration cases.
Noting that immigration remained the most requested category for ECF funding between April and December 2016, the charity says low overall application and grant rates mean the system 'barely scratches the surface of the estimated unmet need'.