Carers and special guardians set to lose right to family court legal aid
Carers of the most vulnerable children will be forced to take on the council by themselves in court.
From April, legal aid will not be available to people trying to go through the family courts, unless in very special circumstances.
Merton Council has come under fire for not providing support to special guardians, legally appointed to look after children if they have already lived with them for a significant amount of time.
In July 2012, a High Court judge ordered Merton to change its policy of underpaying special guardians after a former civil servant was being short-changed by £250 a month.
The council agreed to improve its policy by December 2012, but another case has highlighted there are ongoing disputes.
A Mitcham woman, who agreed to look after a young relative instead of the child’s alcoholic mother, told this newspaper her life has become a constant battle with Merton Council.
The woman, whose identity we have agreed not to reveal, said she was being denied child benefit by the council and was relying on legal aid to challenge the council in the family court.
She said: “The whole thing is a joke. They were supposed to give me a settling-in grant of £750, but then they made it £400.
"They said the stuff I wanted to buy, like bedding and clothes, was too expensive and that I should get it from Argos or Primark instead.
“It is not about the money, I just want what is right for her.
“The council saves a lot of money by not having to put her into foster care, but I have rights too and it feels like they are trying to walk all over me.
“If this happened to me in April I wouldn’t even qualify for legal aid. I don’t understand why criminals will.
Councillor Maxi Martin, cabinet member for children’s services, said: “Merton renewed its special guardian policy on December 1, 2012, so special guardians can now receive a means-tested benefit that is calculated using the Fostering Network rate for London.
“When working out how much allowance a special guardian is entitled to, we take into consideration the child benefit they would be entitled to as well as their salary and other financial commitments.
“While special guardians receive their allowance from Merton, they receive child benefit direct from central Government.”