Categorized | Civil Liberties, Legal Aid

Court of Appeal allows charities to challenge legal aid cuts for prisoners

Court of Appeal allows charities to challenge legal aid cuts for prisoners

Denying prisoners in England and Wales legal aid so they can effectively challenge the conditions under which they are held could be illegal, the court of appeal has ruled.

Senior judges have granted two charities – the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prisoners’ Advice Service (PAS) – permission to bring a fresh case questioning the legality of budgetary restrictions introduced by the Ministry of Justice.

The cuts have coincided with an unprecedented deterioration of safety standards in English and Welsh prisons and a rise in suicides, compounded by staff shortages. In the year following the cuts, calls to the Howard League’s advice line increased by 45 per cent. The legal team, which provides the only dedicated legal service for children and young people in prison in the country, is overwhelmed with requests from young people with nowhere else to turn.

A challenge by the Howard League and PAS was blocked by the High Court in March 2014, but that decision has now been overturned by Court of Appeal judges Lord Justice Leveson, Lord Justice Tomlinson and Lady Justice Sharp.

The Court of Appeal’s decision means that the case can now proceed to a full trial. Unlike other cuts to legal aid, where a safety net was introduced to allow people to apply for legal aid in exceptional circumstances, the cuts for prisoners were absolute. There is no lifeline for even the most vulnerable or incapacitated prisoner to apply for legal aid for prison law matters.

“There could be a significant number of individuals subject to these types of decisions for whom it may be very difficult to participate effectively without support from someone,” Sir Brian Leveson explained in the judgement.

In its detailed decision, the Court of Appeal recognises the risk of systemic unfairness as a result of the legal aid cuts to prison law. Lord Justice Leveson concludes: “The question of inherent unfairness concerns not simply the structure of the system which may be capable of operating fairly, but whether there are mechanisms in place to accommodate the arguably higher risk of unfair decisions for those with mental health, learning or other difficulties which effectively deprive them of the ability effectively to participate in, at least, some of the decisions to which [the applicants’ counsel] Ms Kaufmann refers.”

“It is arguable, therefore, that without the potential for access to appropriate assistance, the system could carry an unacceptable risk of unfair, and therefore unlawful, decision making.”

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “We welcome [this] decision, which offers hope to children and young people in prison.

“The Howard League’s legal team has represented many hundreds of children in prison and we want them to thrive inside and on release. Legal aid gets them the best help to achieve that.”

Deborah Russo, Joint Managing Solicitor at the Prisoners’ Advice Service, said: “We are delighted with the outcome of [this] hearing. The legal aid cuts to prison law have resulted in prisoners’ access to justice being severely curtailed with the consequence of further isolating an already very marginalised sector of our society.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We welcome the fact that the court has narrowed what was a wide-ranging claim to just one issue. Legal aid is taxpayers’ money and should be used where really necessary, not for issues from prisoners that can be fairly dealt with by other means. We will continue to argue this point in court.”

This post was written by:

- who has written 462 posts on Upper Case – The Anya Legal Journal.

Mike Gribbin is a retired Civil Servant with wide experience, including the drafting and implementation of Parliamentary legislation and regulations. He is the editor of “Criminal Offences Handbook”, a uniquely comprehensive guide to more than one thousand ways to fall foul of UK criminal law. He is Editor of the Upper Case Legal Journal and has been writing blog posts for the past eight years.

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