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Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (Legal Aid for Separated Children) (Miscellaneous Amendments) Order 2019

Volume 799: debated on Tuesday 1 October 2019

Motion to Approve

Moved by

This draft instrument makes provision for separated migrant children to be eligible for legal aid for civil legal services for non-asylum immigration and citizenship matters. This is important legislation that ensures access to justice for these vulnerable children.

For noble Lords not familiar with its provision, legal aid for civil legal services is available to an individual if the service is in scope—in other words, if it is described in Part 1 of Schedule 1 to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act. In addition, legal aid may be available on an exceptional basis where there would be a breach or risk of a breach of the individual’s rights under the European Convention on Human Rights or any enforceable EU rights. This is known as exceptional case funding or ECF. For in-scope matters and ECF, legal aid eligibility is subject to statutory means and merits assessments.

Under current arrangements, separated migrant children seeking to regularise their immigration or citizenship status in the United Kingdom can apply for exceptional case funding to receive legal aid for help with their citizenship application, immigration application form or subsequent appeal. Following litigation and engagement with key stakeholders including the Children’s Society, this draft instrument will bring these matters into the scope of legal aid. This means that separated migrant children will no longer have to make ECF applications to receive legal aid for citizenship and non-asylum immigration matters.

I turn to the scope of the amendment. Officials have been working closely with other government departments and children’s charities to finalise the terms of the amendment since 2018. The amendment makes provision for separated migrant children to be eligible for civil legal services in relation to their immigration applications for entry clearance, leave to enter and leave to remain in the United Kingdom under the Immigration Rules. The amendment also provides civil legal services in relation to separated migrant children’s immigration applications for leave to remain where that application is made and determined outside of the Immigration Rules. This would include applications for discretionary leave to remain and leave to remain on medical grounds, as well as exceptional circumstances or compassionate or compelling factors, which may warrant a grant of leave outside the immigration rules.

Further, legal aid will be available to these children in relation to relevant applications for entry clearance, leave to enter or leave to remain made under the Immigration Rules by another person, including family members and extended family members, and granted either under or outside the Immigration Rules. These applications are determined on the basis of exceptional circumstances under Article 8 of the convention, regarding the right to respect for private and family life, or on compassionate and compelling factors. This amendment includes legal aid applications for registration as a British subject or citizen, a British Overseas Territories citizen, and a British overseas citizen.

Some amendments relate to the procedures for applying for different forms of civil legal services. These are grouped into different categories: gate- way work, controlled work and licensed work. The changes ensure that, for controlled work and licensed work, separated migrant children who require legal representation in proceedings before a court or tribunal covered by this regulation will be able to receive it. There are also some technical amendments to other instruments regarding the merits and financial eligibility criteria. The changes ensure that the tests applied to immigration matters currently in scope of legal aid are also applied to this regulation.

This instrument takes a normative definition of a “child”, being any person under 18 years. Where the age is uncertain, the individual is treated by the director of legal aid casework and the legal aid provider making the legal aid determination as being under 18 years.

For the purposes of this regulation, a child is “separated” if they are not being cared for by a parent or someone with parental responsibility for them. It also accounts for children who are looked after by a local authority or are privately fostered, but for whom parental responsibility has not been determined. It also acknowledges that some separated children may be in other informal caring arrangements or, indeed, caring for themselves.

A Written Ministerial Statement was laid on 12 July 2018 outlining the Government’s intentions to lay this legislation. Following this Statement, the Legal Aid Agency advised legal aid providers of interim amendments to the exceptional case funding guidance for applications made by, or on behalf of, separated migrant children for citizenship and non-asylum immigration matters. The guidance outlined reduced evidence requirements when making an application and that ECF caseworkers will operate on the basis that there is a strong presumption that separated migrant children require legal aid.

To conclude, the draft regulation before us today makes important changes to the scope of legal aid to bring citizenship and non-asylum immigration matters into scope of legal aid for separated migrant children. This is important legislation that ensures access to justice for a highly vulnerable section of our society. I beg to move.

My Lords, I warmly welcome this regulation and the manner in which the Minister introduced it. As vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children, I have sat in meetings with young people and children in the immigration system and in care, and have heard their concerns and uncertainties about the future. I very warmly welcome this regulation and the careful and sensitive way in which the Minister introduced it. The Children’s Society, as the Minister pointed out, has been a prime mover in this area over many years; indeed, a consortium of charities has been working towards this goal. I am sure we all feel that it is a momentous occasion to have this legislation after so many years for these children—this access to justice for them.

Many of these children will have spent most of their lives in this country. They may well know few or no people in the country they come from. So there may be good humanitarian reasons why they should continue to live in this country. The theme from these meetings is that the earlier one can begin the process towards leave to remain or citizenship, the better—but so very often, these decisions get left until the last minute, when the child has just about reached the age of 18, which is very unsatisfactory. This regulation will make it much easier to act early in the best interests of these children.

I want to ask the Minister about what will become of care leavers. When these children pass the age of 18, or sometimes prior to that age, they become care leavers. They still have some responsibilities due to them from their local authority, but not as strong. I understand that the Government have given some commitment that there will be an expectation that the default position will be that the exceptional case fund will be applied in these cases, but can the Minister confirm that in his response to the debate?

Last year I, along with the noble Lord, Lord Storey, met three care leavers. One of them had experienced some periods in a mental institution; as we know, many care leavers experience a great deal of loneliness when they leave care, and the challenge for him of the uncertainty over his immigration status had damaged his mental health. Another young man was working as a taxi driver, illegally and under the radar, which was a very unsatisfactory state of affairs. These young people, who have had such a difficult start in life, could have their rights better protected by us. This regulation does exactly that, so I warmly welcome it.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a vice-president of the Children’s Society. I want to share my delight in the work of the Children’s Society and other children’s charities in helping to bring us to this point.

I warmly welcome the draft order amending the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 to bring immigration matters for unaccompanied and separated children within the scope of legal aid. That is a wonderful thing. Without this amendment, children outside their country of origin who are separated from their parent or care giver are at significant risk. The reinstatement of legal aid for separated children will be transformative for some of the most vulnerable children in our country.

However, welcome as the amendment is, it still leaves unresolved, as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, has said, the needs of these vulnerable young people when they transition to adulthood if their immigration status at that point is still uncertain or temporary. On the day a young person turns 18, everything changes. Protections that have been in place can disappear overnight. This is particularly the case for children in local authority care who become care leavers. The noble Earl referred to this issue in an earlier Question on homelessness. Once children turn 18, immigration legislation kicks in. Where a young person in care has uncertain immigration status, they are particularly at risk of having support from local authorities withdrawn, and they can all too easily become destitute and homeless.

I ask the Minister to assure us that he recognises the vulnerability of care leavers at the age of 18 who have not been able up to that point to regularise their immigration status, and to assure this House that the Government still intend to introduce a presumption of exceptional care funding for care leavers so that they can access legal aid at this critical point in their lives.

My Lords, I too support the draft statutory instrument. I congratulate the Children’s Society for bringing a judicial review against the Ministry of Justice following the passing of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. It was of course that judicial review that led to the tabling of this draft SI.

We ought to note that it is deeply regrettable that for seven years separated children have too often suffered the loss of housing, education and employment, with many becoming destitute. These crises tend to occur as the child turns 18, and access to these services depends more heavily upon a person’s immigration status. The Government were of course warned of the consequences in 2012, but unfortunately it took a judicial review to convince Ministers that the human rights of these separated children have to be respected.

I would like to ask the Minister a few questions, if I may. First, I have a concern about the funding of the services implied by the statutory instrument. The Government anticipate only some 800 children becoming eligible for legal aid under this SI, based on 2012-13 figures. The Children’s Society estimates that a minimum of 12,500 to 15,000 children are potentially likely to become eligible for legal aid under this SI—and those figures do not even include groups such as trafficked children, for example. The Government estimate that the total cost of this SI will be only an average annual figure of £1 million, which of course probably fits about 800. I work that out as about £66 per child, if we take the Children’s Society estimate. Can the Government explain the huge discrepancy between the anticipated numbers given by the Children’s Society and the Government’s own estimate? Have the Government allowed for an increase in the likely numbers of children since 2012-13, in particular taking account of the growth in immigration during this period, and were the 2012-13 numbers unnaturally low anyway, for some reason—because they seem extraordinarily low to me?

Another question concerns care leavers, as others have mentioned. After young people leave care, they really do face difficulties in accessing state benefits, education and employment. Some may even face removal from this country, the only country they know. The need for legal advice is particularly critical as children transition to adulthood and become care leavers. As others have said, all sorts of things change and they become incredibly vulnerable; many in fact become destitute, which is deeply shocking in our very rich country.

It is very important to have a commitment from the Government to introduce a presumption—the word “presumption” is very important—that care leavers will receive exceptional case funding. Can the Minister give this House that assurance, using that rather precise term? It is not good enough to somehow suggest that we would like to think that children leaving care will have access to legal aid. Related to this question, can the Minister confirm that the right to exceptional case funding will not be affected if we leave the European Union? The Government’s Explanatory Memorandum notes that in Section 10 of LASPO, exceptional case funding will be granted where a failure to grant it would breach the individual’s human rights under the European Convention on Human Rights or another enforceable EU right. I hope that the Minister can reassure me that care leavers will be entitled to ECF and that this right will not be affected if we leave the EU.

My Lords, I, too, welcome this order and thank the Minister for introducing and explaining it. I also welcome the comments made initially by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, regarding the position of care leavers and new adults, those points being echoed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle and the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, pointed out, the credit for this SI is due to the Children’s Society, for the judicial review it brought last year challenging the lawfulness of the exclusion of legal aid in these cases. Credit is also due to members of the Refugee and Migrant Children’s Consortium, who worked with the Children’s Society and the Government to ensure that this SI came into being, making good on the Government’s promise, given by Lucy Frazer MP, which was the basis on which the Government settled the Children’s Society’s case.

I can do no better in summarising the existing position and the reason for change than to quote from the statement of facts and grounds submitted by the Children’s Society’s legal team, led by Paul Bowen QC, with the consent of Mr Bowen:

He says:

“Where such children are involved in non-asylum immigration matters, with the very limited exceptions, these matters are currently considered ‘out of scope’ for the purposes of Section 9 of LASPO, and so will only be funded if an Exceptional Case Funding … determination has been made pursuant to Section 10 of LASPO.

These children are among the most vulnerable individuals in the country. They are at a heightened risk of abuse and exploitation as a result of their immigration status. The potential immigration processes and proceedings they face in an attempt to regularise their status in the UK are extremely complex. The consequences for these children if they do not or are unable to negotiate these processes and/or proceedings are fundamental and life-changing, ranging from a lack of access to further education, social services and healthcare to deportation. They have a consequent need for legal advice and assistance. That need is not currently being met by the ECF system nor by any other means. This is unlawful for the reasons summarized in the argument”.

The Children’s Society rightly claims that it securing this change was,

“a significant achievement as so far it is the only cohort the government has agreed to bring back into scope for legal aid”.

It wrote that:

“The change all our supporters and partners helped bring about will have huge implications for thousands of children who need this vital support”—

I repeat the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, about the numbers affected—and that:

“It will ensure they can once again access the legal aid they so desperately need to live full and settled lives”.

I also quote from paragraphs 34 and 35 of the Government’s impact assessment, which state that:

“Separated migrant children have distinct vulnerabilities and needs, which can be made worse by uncertainty in their immigration status. This includes the risk of going missing from local authority care, and being subject to exploitation in private foster care arrangements. Further, if children do not resolve their immigration status during childhood, they can become ineligible for certain public services (like being able to work, find housing or continue with education) when they turn 18 … It is expected that professional legal advice from legal aid immigration solicitors on non-asylum immigration matters will help to ensure more robust initial decision making because the original application should make the best possible case, improving the quality of applications and appeals to the Home Office”.

This case is absolutely overwhelming, so the Government must acknowledge that this change was long overdue and that the litigation should never have been contested, as it was for some time.

In welcoming this SI unreservedly, I remind the House that it is significant that this crucial reform was forced on the Government by judicial review. The review involved the courts considering a decision on judicial review as to whether the power in Section 9(2) of the LASPO Act should be used so as to bring unaccompanied and separated children’s immigration cases into the scope of LASPO. I also remind the House and the Government that the LASPO Act includes the power to bring claims of different types back within scope. That was a power for which we argued before the Act was enacted.

As we now know, the LASPO Act has caused great hardship in denying legal aid to a number of vulnerable groups, who cannot afford legal advice or representation and are left unable to understand or take advantage of their legal rights and protections without it. We have argued for restoration within the scope of legal aid of much social welfare law, more housing law and more cases of debt, for easier access to legal aid in domestic violence cases and for a wider exceptional case funding scheme. I hope that with the precedent of this statutory instrument, itself of limited but very important application, we may see an approach to the scope of legal aid more generally that is fairer, more generous and more progressive.

My Lords, like others, I unreservedly and wholeheartedly support the order before us today. However, I have to say that the congratulations should go not to the Minister but to the Children’s Society. The noble Lord, Lord Marks, the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle made similar comments. I was pleased to see the Government recognise this in their impact assessment, which refers to the justification of their preferred option going forward:

“In order to meet the commitments made following litigation”.

It is quite clear there and later on, in paragraph 4, why these have been brought forward:

“Following litigation from The Children’s Society, the government agreed to bring civil legal services for separated migrant children’s non-asylum immigration matters back within the scope of the legal aid scheme”.

It should never have been taken out of the scheme.

It is in some ways an embarrassing—but I can tell that the Minister was not embarrassed—U-turn for the Government. We cannot hold the Minister responsible in this case for having found that he was wrong on this issue because it was before the noble and learned Lord entered your Lordships’ House. Some of us will recall what were at the time very heated, at times unpleasant, debates during this legislation. It was coalition government legislation. Numerous votes took place. It was one of those Acts that many of us found very difficult. I am pleased to see that we are now addressing some of the injustices that were taken forward at that point.

Legal aid was taken away from some of the most vulnerable people—this was not the only case. I remember going home one evening extraordinarily upset because the Government had taken away legal aid from women who were victims of domestic violence. It was taken away from women who were contesting child custody cases as well. There were a lot of injustices, and I welcome the fact that this is one injustice that is being corrected. I hope we shall see many more.

The Minister already has a number of questions to address. Do the Government have any idea how many children have been affected negatively by losing the right to legal aid? It would be helpful to know how many got exceptional case funding. I think there were a few instances of that. How many children may have been deported because they were unable to get legal aid? How many children went missing from care because they were unable to get the support they needed? I think those are the kinds of figures the Government need to provide to fully understand the impact the legislation had at this time.

Does the Minister know how many separated migrant children are in local authority care, and could be expected to benefit from the change? I think that the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle made very powerful points about the position of children when they turn 18. This is a problem for any care leaver, but I think it is particularly relevant to separated migrant children.

The Children’s Society estimates that there are 144,000 undocumented migrant children living in England and Wales. The Government obviously have a responsibility now to make this change known to those children. How is this possible? What plans do the Government have to ensure that those who can benefit from this change will know about it?

There is a welcome point in the order, that, if there is a case going through, and a child turns 18 during the process of that application, they will continue to get legal aid until that application has been completed. I am looking at the Minister to see whether or not he understands the point I am making—he does. That is welcome, I am grateful for that, but if that separated migrant child is reunited with a relative during the process of that application, will the case be able to continue with legal aid?

This year is the 70th anniversary of legal aid, something that we in the Labour Party are very proud of, but the Government have been rather quiet during the anniversary. I think it would be a welcome opportunity to have a look back at other provisions in this legislation and see what other injustices have been done. This one has been a long, hard fight. I pay enormous tribute to the Children’s Society and other children’s charities which have ensured that this change has come about, but perhaps there is an opportunity now to look at other injustices in the legislation and see what more can be done, particularly with the spending commitments being made by the Conservative Party this week. This is a real opportunity to see whether we can address further injustices.

My Lords, I am obliged for the contributions from all sides of the House, to a greater or lesser extent. This is an important area and an important issue. I will begin by addressing generally some of the points that a number of different noble Lords raised.

First, the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, raised the very real question of those termed care leavers, who tend to be a cohort aged 18 to 25 years. It was a point raised by the Children’s Society when we discussed this matter more generally, as the noble Earl and the right reverend Prelate will be aware. The position we are in regarding that cohort is that we have agreed to consider the position of care leavers and their access to legal aid via the exceptional case funding scheme in relation to immigration matters. That work is ongoing, but I cannot say more than that at the present time.

In addition, there is the question of separated children who applied for legal aid but turned 18 before the original immigration application had been fully determined. They will continue to be eligible for legal aid until the immigration or citizenship matter has been concluded. How it is concluded is a different matter, but if it is concluded through the immigration process, legal aid will continue to be available. I seek to reassure noble Lords on that point.

Very diverse figures were given regarding the number of children who might have been or may now be eligible for legal aid under this provision. It is very difficult indeed to identify precise figures. That might explain why such a diversity of figures is being quoted. So far as we are concerned, the most reliable figures are from 2012-13 because after that, as a consequence of LASPO taking these cases outwith the scope of legal aid, there are not reliable figures. That is why it has been necessary to go back to the last set of reliable figures pre the LASPO provisions themselves. That might be unfortunate in a number of respects, but that is where we are. We intend to monitor the figures, but clearly we will have an eye on the number of applications being made.

In that regard—to respond to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith—we are and have been engaging since July last year with legal aid agencies over the scheme for provision. Indeed, pending this order coming into force, we have been explaining to legal aid agencies that separated children falling into this category who still rely on exceptional case funding would be entitled to certain presumptions so far as their application was concerned, because their rights under Article 8 of the convention are clearly to be regarded as in play, if I can put it in those terms. There has also been an assumption that they are vulnerable and that they are not capable of carrying through these proceedings without the assistance of legal aid. That has actually simplified the exceptional case funding application process. Indeed, we are working with legal practitioners to review and simplify the exceptional case funding application forms and guidance, which we hope again might be of assistance to the cohort known as the 18 to 25 year-old care leavers.

Just to clarify: if I have understood correctly, is the Minister saying that all children who currently get exceptional case funding will now get legal aid to complete their cases?

If they already have exceptional case funding then they have legal aid, so there should not be any interruption regarding that cohort, who have already received it. I was seeking to stress that since this matter arose in July 2018—I acknowledge that that was because the Children’s Society took steps with regard to judicial review—we have taken steps to try to simplify the ECF process for those separated children but as a result they have legal aid, so generically they have legal aid and that should not be interrupted.

Regarding the future position, ECF is not affected by our decision to leave the European Union. Of course, convention rights are already expressly covered by LASPO. There is also the question of retained EU rights under our domestic legislation. Therefore, there is no reason why the ECF scheme should be affected by that.

As regards the wider number of children who may have been affected by this, it is not possible to give figures. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, referred to 144,000 undocumented children potentially being in the United Kingdom. The point to stress is that if they are undocumented, it is very difficult to determine how reliable that estimate is, where they are, what they are doing, where they have gone or where they have been. By the very definition of undocumented, we have an issue here which is surrounded by a penumbra of doubt and uncertainty and very little can be done with that.

However, I hope that with these regulations coming into force we will have a more meaningful ability to deal with these vulnerable children, to provide them with the support that we acknowledge they will require in future and which they have had in the past under the exceptional case funding, but which we believe should now more appropriately be brought within the scope of Section 9 of LASPO.

Motion agreed.