UK: Legal aid cuts will disproportionately affect children with mental disabilities

“Recent cuts to government funding of free legal support in the UK will have a disproportionate and negative impact on children with mental disabilities – particularly those in the criminal justice system," says Rebecca Parry, UK researcher for MDAC’s project on Access to Justice for Children with Mental Disabilities. "Legal aid for all treatment matters, including those for child prisoners with mental disabilities will be stopped.”

MDAC, with part-funding from the European Commission, is carrying out a project to investigate and expose the barriers to justice for children with mental disabilities in ten EU Member States: Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovenia, Spain and the United Kingdom. Today we are highlighting the ramifications of the United Kingdom’s legal aid cuts for children with mental disabilities and how Wales is taking responsibility for future spending decisions.

As a result of budget cuts in the UK, many children in the country will now be denied legal help for the vast majority of problems they face in the criminal justice system.  The effects will be particularly acute for children with mental disabilities. According to the Prison Reform Trust in the UK, over 60 per cent of children who offend have significant communication difficulties; around 25 per cent have an IQ of less than 70; 43 per cent of children on community orders have emotional and health needs; and 30 per cent have borderline learning difficulties. The figures are even higher for children in custody.

MDAC’s research in the UK is uncovering clear evidence that children who populate the youth justice system are ‘children in need’. Denying them legal assistance when they come into contact with the criminal justice system will leave many in a paticularly vulnerable position. The removal of legal assistance will mean that a child who wants to challenge the lengthening of their detention during internal prison proceedings will have to appear in front of prison governors alone.

However in a positive move by the Welsh National Assembly, political leaders in Wales must now consider the rights and needs of children when exercising any of their functions; including budgets and financing of legal assistance. Ministers must also consider how they can use their functions to improve the way children access their rights. MDAC supports this new duty, which has the potential to mitigate the negative impact of spending restrictions on children with mental disabilities in the criminal justice system, and invites the rest of the UK to follow suit.

To monitor compliance with this duty the Welsh Assembly has developed a Children’s Rights Scheme and a Children’s Rights Impact Assessment. In England, Scotland and Northern Ireland Ministers only have to ‘keep under consideration’ how to ensure better implementation of children's rights – language Scotland’s Human Rights Commission has argued is "too weak and affords Ministers too much discretion to ensure compliance."  Next year the UK Government has to report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child on how it has been implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

MDAC calls on the UK government to undertake child impact assessments which explicitly address the rights of children with disabilities to access justice, building on the promising practice of the Welsh Assembly.


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