Extended Family Guardianship: Legal Aid

Justice – in the House of Commons at on 16 May 2023.

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Photo of Peter Aldous Peter Aldous Conservative, Waveney

Whether the Government are taking steps to ensure that legal aid is available for extended family members who are seeking guardianship of vulnerable children.

Photo of Mike Freer Mike Freer Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

We laid a family statutory instrument in February this year which, among other things, brings special guardianship orders in private law proceedings into the scope of legal aid, injecting a further £5.6 million a year into the system. A special guardianship order can place a child in the care of someone other than their birth parents. That can include family members, including grandparents, and close family friends.

Photo of Peter Aldous Peter Aldous Conservative, Waveney

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. The Government’s announcement, which he outlined, of an additional £5.6 million for legal aid to support family members seeking guardianship of vulnerable children is extremely welcome. I would be grateful if he considered whether that could be part of a wider review of the rights of family members, specifically grandparents who are very often best placed to provide a loving home, care and support.

Photo of Mike Freer Mike Freer Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

The rights of grandparents have risen up the agenda considerably over the last few years. Both colleagues who have spoken on this issue today, including my hon. Friend, make some valid points. I will give a commitment to discuss it with my colleague Lord Bellamy, who leads on this area, to see what further work we can do.

Photo of Afzal Khan Afzal Khan Shadow Minister (Justice)

These are not my words on the cuts to legal aid, but the words of the new Lord Chancellor:

“There is now a serious concern that, without some steps to restore a measure of access to justice, serious injustice will inevitably follow.”

Will the Minister heed the words of his new boss and reverse the devastating cuts to legal aid that his party has inflicted over the last decade?

Photo of Mike Freer Mike Freer Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I think, actually, that it was the Labour party who said that it was going to

“derail the gravy train of legal aid”.

This Government have continued to fund legal aid, with £1.2 billion on criminal and £813 million on civil. In the last few months, we have injected nearly £30 million into the civil part and some £13 million of that is legal aid for special guardianship orders, so I simply do not accept the premise that we are underfunding or cutting legal aid. In fact, we are investing in it. The hon. Gentleman touched on access to civil, family and tribunals. On family, we increased the budget for the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service by £8.4 million to £141 million. We are recruiting more judges across the system. That includes more fee-paid judges who can work in this area. That includes a virtual regional pilot to support London and the south-east, so that access to justice is faster. That includes £7.5 million for a family mediation scheme, helping 17,000 families get the access to justice they need. Any attempt to suggest we are not investing in the justice system is simply false.