The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has confirmed enhanced legal aid support for those applying for Special Guardianship Orders (SGO).
Under the move, funding will be extended to more people applying for SGOs, which see a child in need of a loving home placed with extended family, friends, or foster parents until they reach the age of 18.
The MoJ said these cases are often “complicated, emotionally charged, and challenging” for those families looking for the best outcome for vulnerable children.
As a result of the changes, people making such applications in private law hearings will have access to legal aid funding for advice and representation on their cases.
The funding will also provide free legal representation to parents opposing Special Guardianship Orders in private law proceedings to ensure they have the right support and advice.
Justice Minister Lord Bellamy said:
“Providing a stable, loving home for a vulnerable child in need is an utterly selfless act and it is right we provide families with the vital support they need – particularly in the most complex and emotive of cases.
We are investing millions of pounds every year to make sure criminal and civil legal aid support can reach those who need it most.”
Previously, legal aid was only available for Special Guardianship cases where the local authority was involved in submitting an application to remove a child from their birth parents.
“We are pleased to see that those seeking and responding to Special Guardianship Orders (SGOs) will now be eligible for legal aid in private family law proceedings,” said Law Society of England and Wales Vice President Nick Emmerson: “This extension of the scope for legal aid for SGOs is something we have long argued.”
Emmerson did, however, add the caveat that the changes “don’t go far enough”:
“Legal aid for Special Guardians, who are often grandparents, should be non-means tested. Many fall through the justice gap as they are excluded from legal aid because of the capital in their home but they may not have enough income from a pension to pay for legal costs.
It is better for the child and better financially for the public purse if an SGO can be arranged and making legal aid for Special Guardians non-means tested would help achieve this.”
The government said the changes to extend eligibility to private law cases comes as part of a wider investment in civil and criminal legal aid.
Indeed, in March the government announced widened access to means-free legal aid for both parents and those with parental responsibilities as well as domestic abuse victims.