Categorized | Civil Law, Legal Aid

Legal aid restrictions

Legal aid restrictions

The government has loosened a controversial restriction preventing some victims of domestic abuse from accessing legal aid.

Domestic abuse victims currently have to provide evidence that abuse has taken place within the past 24 months in order to qualify for legal aid. A technical provision in the civil legal aid (procedure) regulations 2012 meant that when cases reached a final hearing, legal aid could be withdrawn if the evidence was considered to be out of date.

Having listened to concerns from representative groups, a spokesperson for the MoJ said the government was “absolutely clear that victims of domestic violence must receive legal aid in order to break free from abusive relationships.” He added: “Ministers have agreed to amend the rules so that victims of domestic violence can be confident they will receive the support they need.”

Law Society president Andrew Caplen expressed pleasure that the government had fixed ‘this unconsidered technicality’. The change follows intense lobbying by the Law Society and other practitioner groups. The Society argued that it could not have been parliament’s intention to grant legal aid initially only for it to be withdrawn in the middle of proceedings.

Another set of legal aid restrictions is now the subject of an action before the court of appeal. The restrictions delay prisoners’ rehabilitation and mean that thousands of prisoners are being prevented from starting rehabilitation because they are denied legal aid for parole board hearings.

Concerns over the removal of legal aid from internal prison hearings have focused on problems that inmates have in moving to open prisons so they can begin courses that pave the way to eventual release. It particularly affects prisoners serving indeterminate sentences.

The appeal, brought jointly by the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prisoners’ Advice Service, argues that taxpayers are now having to pay to keep prisoners inside for longer than is necessary. According to the charities’ submission, without a move to open conditions a standard indeterminate-sentence prisoner will almost certainly never be released.

The barrister representing the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prisoner Advisory service, said that all areas of prison law have been removed from the scope of legal aid in what amounts to a systematic unfairness.
She said: “Many prisoners cannot access the process themselves. Prisoners live in a closed world. They can’t access outside resources. They can’t go to the Citizens Advice Bureau. The complaints systems and the ombudsman system do not provide the fairness that is lacking [in the current system].”

She added that there was no provision for funding in exceptional cases. “There’s no flexibility here. Nothing can be done.”

The Legal Aid Agency argues, Kafka-like, that inmates who have not yet served their sentence tariff are not entitled to legal aid because their liberty is not at stake. The Ministry of Justice maintains that the internal prison complaints system and the prisons ombudsman are capable of dealing with the problem. That remains to be seen.

The court of appeal reserved judgment.

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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