Founded in the USA, Kids in Need of Defense (KIND)’s pro bono model has come to the UK and now Scotland. This article explains how, working with leading legal firms, it helps migrant children

Not every story in the Scottish legal profession starts with Angelina Jolie and Microsoft. In 2008 this unlikely duo founded what was to become the global initiative known as Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), which provides pro bono legal representation to migrant children, from Aberdeen to Mexico City.

The humanitarian situation at the southern border of the United States is well documented. But the plight of unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children in that context only grabbed the world’s attention when the Trump administration implemented its infamous “zero tolerance” approach to border crossings made other than at designated entry points. This has been called the “family separation” policy, the devastating consequences of which are still in full swing today. KIND continues to lead the fight for justice and fairness for the children affected.

Rewind to 2008, when KIND was established to tackle an endemic problem for unaccompanied children: access to a lawyer. Simply put, children coming alone to the United States to flee violence, abuse and other harm, and encountered by the authorities, were unlikely to access a lawyer to assist them with their immigration proceedings. This led to children facing deportation, via immigration courts, alone. KIND’s statistics reveal that since 2014 more than 300,000 unaccompanied refugee and migrant children have arrived in the USA. Approximately 60% of these children have no representation in court; only one in 10 children without a lawyer wins their immigration case.

KIND was created to provide pro bono, child-centred legal representation to these children. It established a national network of committed law firms, corporate legal departments, law schools and bar association partners which offer their lawyers for free. Immigration law is a very complex area, so KIND trains the pro bono lawyers to give them the knowledge and skills to do the job. The results have been remarkable. KIND’s network in the USA now includes over 650 partners, and more than 50,000 lawyers, paralegals and law students have been trained. The network has donated over 712,000 hours of pro bono legal representation. Since 2009, KIND has received more than 20,000 referrals of unaccompanied children from 72 countries. Of cases completed in 2019, the success rate was an astonishing 93%.

KIND has now expanded its scope, and is a significant force in public education and campaigning for unaccompanied children to receive fair and appropriate treatment within the US immigration system. It has also turned its attention to applying its working model across the world.

Adapting to UK needs

In 2016, with the support of KIND and Microsoft, the KIND model came to the UK. Kids in Need of Defense UK is a collaboration between KIND in the US and five UK not-for-profit legal organisations: Central England Law Centre, Coram Children’s Legal Centre, MiCLU at Islington Law Centre, Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit, and ourselves at JustRight Scotland. We work together across our five hubs in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow to pioneer a UK first: a groundbreaking pro bono model of engagement with the potential to help thousands of children and young people achieve secure immigration status.

The context and need differs to that of the USA. Kids in Need of Defense UK does not work with children in the asylum system at the moment; instead its focus is on other undocumented children and young people. The latest research suggests that there are around 215,000 undocumented children and 117,000 undocumented young people living in the UK (University of Wolverhampton, 2020). It is believed that around 50% of the undocumented children were born here. Most have been educated here and speak English as their main language, yet lack the security provided by British citizenship or, at least, secure immigration status.

This has practical, social and economic impacts and permeates every aspect of their lives. It affects family life, employment, education, housing, social networks, friendships, and access to healthcare and justice. As they transition into adulthood these young people are excluded from work and higher education, and may be removed to a country they have never lived in or even visited. In other words, they feel the full force of the “hostile environment”.

As with the USA, there exists a gap in legal services provision. Limitations in the provision of legal aid across the UK mean these children and young people do not always qualify for free and specialist legal help with their immigration and citizenship applications. Indeed, for many children and young people in England there is no legal aid at all for this issue. Families rarely have funds to pay for legal advice or representation in addition to the Home Office application fees; a wasted fee may mean a family cannot afford to try again. They may be unable to access specialist advice due to the complexity of the application or because they live in a geographical part of the UK without immigration advice provision. The latter is a particularly acute problem, which has been termed “advice deserts”. In this context, securing permanent solutions to children and young people’s immigration status can be extremely challenging.

To meet this challenge, Kids in Need of Defense UK employs the same approach used so successfully by our American colleagues. At present, it works with 12 committed law firms across the UK. These include Dentons UK & Middle East LLP, DLA Piper LLP, and Allen & Overy LLP. Our specialist lawyers in the hubs have trained over 500 pro bono lawyers and provided specialist supervision to over 300 pro bono lawyers actively working on cases. Kids in Need of Defense UK has provided legal advice and representation to over 400 individuals, with a success rate of 99%.

Kids in Need of Defense UK in Scotland

Historically speaking, Scotland has not had as strong a legal culture of end-to-end pro bono casework more commonly seen in London and the USA. However, things are changing. At JustRight Scotland we have partnered with Dentons and DLA Piper, both firms with longstanding ties to KIND in the USA and now in Europe. Working closely with dedicated pro bono managers and office coordinators within each firm, we operate a model whereby JustRight Scotland holds the client relationship with the child or young person, and the pro bono lawyers act in a capacity as volunteers for JustRight Scotland.
Under our careful supervision, the pro bono lawyers take the case from start to finish, working closely with the child or young person. This model allows us first to maximise our capacity and resource, thus helping us see more young people in need. Secondly, it is intended that the training and expert supervision of talented pro bono lawyers will lead to a long-term expansion of the availability of lawyers in Scotland able to work with these children.

We are targeting our service at undocumented children and young people, with a particular focus on unaccompanied children in care. The need is great: the continuation of the “hostile environment”; the arrival of Brexit affecting young Europeans; the inherent disadvantages of being separated children in the care system; and the limited advice provision outside of Glasgow, all combine to make this group highly vulnerable.

In Scotland the context is different again from England, as legal aid is still available for some aspects of this work. However, serious gaps still exist. For example, some Kids in Need of Defense UK children narrowly miss out on legal aid financial eligibility, or live in “advice deserts” and cannot access a specialist lawyer, or may present with vulnerabilities or complexity that require an enhanced level of service and specialist advice. We fully support the Scottish Government’s commitment to public funding of immigration advice to Kids in Need of Defense UK children, but also recognise that public funding alone is not sufficient to reach the entire population and deliver the outcomes we want to achieve. We believe we have a responsibility to innovate and find new ways to achieve social justice, and that engaging a broader pro bono support from the Scottish legal sector is part of the solution. DLA Piper and Dentons are leading the way in this regard.

Improving access to legal services is just one benefit of Kids in Need of Defense UK in Scotland. Consistent with the broader KIND strategy, it is creating a network in the legal profession which is aware of the hostile immigration environment and its impact on children, and is equipped to tackle it. This network is, and must be, broader than law centres and legal aid lawyers; we need a partnership of not-for-profits, commercial law firms and corporations working together to protect children and creating opportunities for the next generation of social justice lawyers. We hope that this will support a determined and comprehensive effort to seek policy change and influence the public narrative around children and immigration.

A KINDer world

Going into the new decade, we will continue to work towards the KIND vision of a world in which refugee and migrant children and young people’s rights and wellbeing are protected through accessing high quality, free legal assistance. At JustRight Scotland we are assisting with KIND’s expansion into Europe, where projects are being set up in Greece, France, Ireland and Belgium to forge safe, legal routes for unaccompanied children on the move. Through Kids in Need of Defense UK, Scotland’s legal profession has joined a global movement where pro bono lawyers across the world dedicate their time, skills and passion towards a common cause.

The Author

Andy Sirel is a senior associate and head of the Scottish Refugee & Migrant Centre at JustRight Scotland

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