Hackney-based charities slam plans not to review legal aid

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Children are among the hardest hit from cuts to legal aid claim two Hackney charities, after the Ministry of Justice confirmed it has no immediate plans to review its policy on access to justice.

The Howard League for Penal Reform and Hackney Community Law Centre have backed findings by youth charity Justrights that legal aid cuts mostly affect children who are homeless, have been victims of sexual exploitation or have mental health problems.

Many areas of legal aid are restricted or no longer available since the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. Last September family justice minister Simon Hughes called for an urgent re-evaluation, following a report by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner claiming cuts to legal aid breach children’s rights to adequate legal representation and support.

But the Ministry of Justice this month confirmed that a review of legal aid provisions may not take place until 2017, leading the Hackney-based Howard League for Penal Reform, a charity that provides legal assistance for those in prison under the age of 21, to say children are being “cut out from access to justice”.

A spokesperson for the Howard League said: “The Lord Chief Justice has recently said that as we celebrate 800 years of Magna Carta and the rule of law, we should ‘gladly be prepared to pay’ for access to justice. It is a scandal that children, the most disenfranchised and voiceless in our community, are being cut off because of a cost saving exercise.”

Justrights, a coalition of charities including the Howard League that campaigns for fair legal access for children and young people, says legal aid cuts are a “false economy”, citing evidence from Citizens Advice that for every £1 saved through cuts, a further £8 needs to be spent on further social provisions.

Ian Rathbone, Chair of Hackney Community Law Centre, backed JustRights’ findings, saying: “Our experience is that vulnerable young people in Hackney have been disproportionately affected by the impact of the cuts to civil legal aid since 2013.

“People often experience problems with employment, housing and welfare benefits and are usually reluctant to approach mainstream services for help. It’s regrettable that the Justice Ministry has decided to abandon its review into the impact of legal aid cuts on young people at a time when many continue to experience hardships. ”

As a result of legal aid cuts, the Howard League has noticed a marked increase in calls to its advice line. “Children in prison have nowhere else to turn. There’s a limit to what you can do and it’s no substitute for proper representation,” its spokesperson added.