Free legal aid for asylum seekers

‘Legal aid’ refers to legal assistance provided by lawyers to persons free of charge to ensure they can effectively exercise their right to access justice. An asylum seeker is a person who has applied for international protection and whose application has not yet been decided on.

Several EU directives provide for children’s right to legal assistance under certain circumstances –specifically, for child suspects/offenders and child victims. Setting conditions and procedural rules for a child to be entitled to legal aid (such as income requirements), however, lies within the powers of Member States.

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Key aspects

  • Child asylum seekers enjoy free legal aid in all EU Member States under certain circumstances.
  • Free legal aid for child asylum seekers is not conditioned on income requirements in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Hungary, the Netherlands, Slovakia and Sweden. However, in Slovakia, if a person was already legally residing in the country on a different legal basis and then applies for asylum, income requirements do apply.
  • Only two Member States (Belgium and Bulgaria) provide free legal aid to children without income requirements in all kinds of cases/regardless of the child’s role in a case (asylum seeker, witness, plaintiff, in immigration procedures, suspect/offender, victim). 

Legal background

Legal aid is enshrined for “everyone” in both the Charter (Article 47) and the ECHR (Article 6). In the context of these instruments, legal aid is set out to help persons in judicial proceedings who do not have sufficient resources to pay for assistance and representation by a lawyer.

Regarding people in migration, Article 15 (2) of the Anti-Trafficking Directive and Article 20 (2) of the Directive on combating the sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children and child pornography refer to legal representation of, and legal counselling for, child victims of trafficking in human beings and victims of sexual abuse. Specific provisions on legal aid for asylum seekers are also enshrined in Articles 20 and 21 of the Asylum Procedures Directive. In all cases, however, setting other conditions or procedural rules for a child to be entitled to legal aid, such as income requirements, lies within the powers of EU Member States.