'Thousands of children' to lose legal aid in shake-up

Boy Many of the children affected will be living alone from their parents

Thousands of children will lose access to legal aid under government plans to shake up the system, campaigners say.

Child rights group JustRights analysed government data obtained from a series of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.

It claims 6,000 children, or 13% of those who receive help with legal-aid costs, will lose it in the reforms.

The government has said repeatedly that legal aid will remain for nearly all children's cases.

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill returns to the Commons later after a string of defeats in the Lords.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: "Our reforms target legal aid where it is most needed. This means that the bill protects spending for the great majority of cases where a child is a party, maintaining around 96% of our current spend.

"Of the remaining cases, many would potentially be eligible for exceptional funding."

'Vulnerable children'

The bill removes whole areas of law from the legal-aid system as part of plans to reduce the Ministry of Justice's budget by £350m and speed up the system.

Some of the most controversial areas covered include women victims of domestic violence, disabled people's benefits cases and children.

The areas where child applicants will be affected are primarily immigration, benefits cases, housing and other social-welfare cases.

JustRights co-chairman James Kenrick says the government claim that 96% of the budget for children's cases will be unaffected by the change is misleading.

'Eleven defeats'

"When you look at the number of cases they will be cutting, it's 13% of cases," he says.

"We are talking about the most vulnerable children. A lot of them will be 15 and 16, who may be care leavers or in a lot of instances will be living away from their parents.

"In theory if they want to bring a case they will have to represent themselves in court."

There have been a record 11 defeats on the bill for the government in the House of Lords in recent months.

These include an amendment led by Paralympian Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, and supported by several Liberal Democrat and Conservative peers, which called for legal aid for all children under the age of 18 to be protected.

The campaign group says the MoJ's new figures include an estimate that the amendment would cost the government £5m to £6m per year.

Mr Kenrick adds: "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."

Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke has signalled the government's intention to overturn all 11 amendments when the bill returns to the Commons.

But he 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.

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