Immigration matters for separated migrant children have officially been brought back into the scope of legal aid in a move welcomed by a children's charity that took on the government over its legal aid cuts.
The Legal Aid for Separated Children Order 2019, which comes into force today, brings non-asylum immigration and citizenship matters into the scope of legal aid for under 18s not in the care of a parent, guardian or legal authority. Previously, they had to apply for exceptional case funding.
Justice minister Wendy Morton MP said: 'This is a positive step to make sure we are offering the right support and protection to some of the most vulnerable in our society. These changes will mean migrant children who have been separated from their carers can access the vital legal support they need faster and more easily.'
The Legal Aid Agency has introduced transitional arrangements for the application process. The agency said they were transitional 'because we have not had time to make the necessary changes to our case management systems. Once long-term system changes have been completed we will publish the permanent arrangements.
'We have had to take this approach because of the uncertainty around the parliamentary timetable. As a result, the amendment has been made in a shorter time-frame than expected'.
The Ministry of Justice decided to extend legal aid last year after examining evidence presented as part of a judicial review brought by the Children's Society and government data on funding applications.
Mark Russell, chief executive of the Children's Society, said the charity was 'delighted' that the government has 'acted on their promise to ensure separated and unaccompanied children can resolve immigration issues and secure their citizenship, without the stress of applying for exceptional case funding, or trying to navigate complex human rights law all alone'.
Just for Kids Law said it frequently works with children who have never had the opportunity to understand their legal rights in relation to their immigration status.
Aika Stephenson, legal director, said: 'Bringing non-asylum immigration matters back into the scope of legal aid for unaccompanied children is therefore an important step towards ensuring that migrant children in the care system, and those who are otherwise separated from their parents, are able to access robust legal advice and support to obtain the right to stay in the country they call home.
'While this change is extremely welcome, the government must now commit to ensuring that it reverses other measures in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 so that all children, including care leavers, have access to the legal aid they need to ensure their rights and entitlements are respected.'