Recent cuts in legal aid have left an estimated 2,500 children each year bringing immigration cases without access to legal representation. Many of these uniquely vulnerable children could qualify for British citizenship, if they were informed about their rights, and had help finding their way through the immigration system.
A recent report by the Children’s Society studied the impact of the loss of legal aid on children. It says:
‘Where children try to resolve their immigration issues on their own… [they] are forced to become “mini solicitors” struggling to prepare witness statements and gather evidence about their past. This is leaving them stressed, fearful and unable to participate properly in their education.’
While the UK has a tradition of high quality pro bono advice, it has not always been strategically developed, and given the historic availability of government-funded lawyers, it has not been focused on areas such as immigration. Following the removal of legal aid for these cases, it is time for a new approach, which is why we are launching a homegrown version of the successful American pro bono initiative, Kids in Need of Defence (KIND). With involvement and support from KIND, and from Microsoft (who were the co-founders of KIND US with Angelina Jolie-Pitt), we are working to build pro bono capacity to address the legal needs of migrant children in the UK.
In the first year alone of this long term project, we expect 200 migrant children in the UK to move from the shadows of our society to enjoying the full rights of British citizenship. We also aim to develop a model for pro bono support that can be scaled up and become sustainable in future years to reach more children in need.
Scale of irregular migration in the UK
Irregular migration is by definition not recorded. Best estimates are that approximately 120,000-140,000 children and young people are living in Britain without the legal right to reside under current immigration laws. Of these, it is thought that around 65,000 young people were born in Britain, have been educated here and speak English. Research suggests that many are living in conditions of severe poverty. Children and young people commonly have little or no control over their immigration status.
Having irregular immigration status makes children extremely vulnerable – at risk of exploitation and exposure to criminality, yet unable to access the help and support available to other young people. Research shows a fear of the police and underreporting of crime as a result. This combination of factors can seriously affect their well-being, including their physical and mental health.
How KIND UK came about
Since 2014, Coram Children’s Legal Centre has been working with corporate law firms, to provide free immigration advice (mainly in relation to citizenship applications) to children who would otherwise have no legal representation. The project is on a small scale, but has proved successful, and KIND UK will bring learning from the US and build on the foundations laid by Coram.
We aim to establish a pro-bono service based on a network of four leading children’s rights organisations: Central England Law Centre (which is leading the project); Coram Children’s Legal Centre; Migrant and Refugee Children’s Legal Unit at Islington Law Centre; and the Women and Young Person’s Department of the Legal Services Agency in Glasgow.
These are all organisations which are rooted in their local communities – where there are large migrant populations – and so are well-placed to reach undocumented young people. Each organisation will employ a supervising immigration lawyer who will provide training and support to pro bono lawyers to enable them to provide legal services to the children; they will also run sessions to make young people aware of their rights, and work to promote public understanding of the needs of the children and young people they support. The supervising lawyers will also look for opportunities to litigate important issues related to children’s rights and seek to feed into work on improving the policy and legal framework. Once the network is established, the project data and experiences will be used to communicate about the needs and experiences of children, and actively seek to influence systems that block children from resolving their immigration problems.
At the time of writing, funding has been secured from Unbound Philanthropy and Paul Hamlyn Foundation and from Microsoft. Discussions have taken place with several corporate legal firms and early indications are that there is significant interest from pro bono lawyers.
KIND UK is being created as an attempt to fill some of the gap left by cuts in legal aid. It is still very early days and we are optimistic for the scheme. We are aware that however successful it proves to be, pro bono help can never be a proper substitute for the restoration of public funding in these vital cases.