Legal aid for prisoners

Legal aid for prisoners

The government has lost an important battle in the court of appeal over access to legal aid. 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 has ruled.

In R (Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prisoners’ Advice Service) v the Lord Chancellor, the court of appeal judges – Lord Justice Leveson, Lord Justice Tomlinson and Lady Justice Sharp – considered five areas of prison law where the Ministry of Justice removed criminal legal aid eligibility in December 2013.

The restrictions were introduced under the 2012 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act which took away from prisoners legal aid to pay for representation and advice in parole board cases about moving towards open conditions and thereby eventual release, eligibility for places in mother and baby units, inmate segregation, resettlement and licence conditions as well as certain disciplinary proceedings.

“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 judgment. “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.”

In a unanimous decision the 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. A challenge by the Howard League and PAS was blocked by the high court in March 2014, a decision here overturned by the court of appeal judges.

The government insists it is not obliged immediately to reinstate legal aid for prisoners following this “unprecedented and groundbreaking” judgment. A full hearing of the issues before the court of appeal has been scheduled for next spring.

Following the judgment, a spokesperson for the MoJ 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.”

Deborah Russo, the joint managing solicitor at PAS, is reported as saying: “We are delighted with the outcome of today’s 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.”

Frances Crook, the chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, was similarly upbeat, saying: “We welcome today’s 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.”

The policy could now join an embarrassing list of measures launched by then justice secretary Chris Grayling which have ended up on the scrapheap. From banning books for prisoners to pressing for removal of client choice and slashing of legal aid, he has left a poisonous heritage for his successors. Subservient to Chancellor Osborne’s austerity programme, he conceded dangerous cuts in the prison service, all the while denying that there was crisis. To clear up the mess, justice secretary Liz Truss has had to offer substantial – and divisive – pay rises. Never was there such a clear example of the false economies of the austerity programme.

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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