Campaigners win battle for legal aid for prisoners

Campaigners are celebrating a ground-breaking victory in a key court of appeal battle over access to legal aid for prisoners.

The Appeal was the result of a legal challenge brought by the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prisoners' Advice Service (PAS) after the government stopped certain categories of prisoners from receiving criminal legal aid in 2013.

The charities reported that, since that time, calls to their advice lines increased by almost 50 per cent and violence and self-injury in prisons rose to record levels. Almost 300 people have lost their lives through suicide.

More prisoners than ever before have called the Howard League and PAS to seek help. Calls to the two charities' advice lines have increased by almost 50 per cent since the cuts were imposed.

Major concessions were granted by the Ministry of Justice before the case came to court in January this year. These allowed for provision of legal aid in cases involving mother-and-baby units, resettlement issues, licence conditions and segregation through an exceptional funding scheme.

However, five areas remained:

  • Pre-tariff reviews by the Parole Board on whether the prisoner is suitable for a move to open conditions.
  • Categorisation reviews of category-A high-security prisoners.
  • Access to offending behaviour programmes and courses.
  • Disciplinary proceedings where no additional days of imprisonment or detention can be awarded.
  • Placement in close supervision centres.

The Court maintained that, without the provision of adequate alternative means, the withdrawal of legal aid was causing inherent or systemic unfairness in three of these five areas. The ruling found that prisoners should have access to legal aid to pay for:

  • Legal representation during pre-tariff reviews by the Parole Board.
  • Reviews of category-A high-security status.
  • Decisions on placements within close supervision centres, which deal with the most disruptive and or dangerous prisoners.

Welcoming the decision, Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said the decision would make the public safer: "This sends a clear message that important decisions about prisoners cannot be made efficiently or fairly in the face of these cuts."

Deborah Russo, joint managing solicitor of the Prisoners' Advice Service, said: "This is an unprecedented and ground-breaking legal victory in which the vulnerability of the prison population is fully recognised as a key factor in its limited ability to access justice. Common law came to the rescue of a marginalised and often forgotten sector of our society."