tuesday, 28 july of 2015

Denying prisoners legal aid may be illegal, appeal court rules

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.

“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.”

Inmates with mental health problems or learning difficulties could be put at particular disadvantage by the removal of legal representation, the court declared.

A full hearing of the issues before the court of appeal has been scheduled for next spring. The restrictions were introduced under the 2012 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Puniushment of Offenders Act.

It 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.

Lawyers for the Ministry of Justice argued that legal aid funding is not required at parole board hearings because there is sufficient flexibility about the way cases are handled.

The Howard League for Penal Reform and PAS say they have been inundated with requests for help from children and prisoners since the cuts, which have coincided with a rise in the number of suicides and staff shortages.

A challenge by the Howard League and PAS was blocked by the high court in March 2014 – a decision overturned on Tuesday by the court of appeal judges, Lord Justice Leveson, Lord Justice Tomlinson and Lady Justice Sharp.

Frances Crook, the chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “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.”

Deborah Russo, the joint managing solicitor at PAS, said: “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.

“We therefore welcome today’s judgment, which now allows for a full hearing of the case and are thrilled to be now given the opportunity to put forward our case for legal aid for the most deprived and disadvantaged of prisoners.”

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.”

(Published by The Guardian – July 28, 2015)

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