Prison inmates face legal aid ban over complaints

Prison officer locking a door
Image caption The government says legal aid must be reserved for those most in need

Prisoners are set to be prevented from claiming legal aid to pursue complaints against the prison system, the government has announced.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said taxpayers' money was being used for "unnecessary legal cases" that could be dealt with by the prison service.

The Ministry of Justice will consult on the proposals which it said would mean 11,000 fewer cases and save £4m a year.

Prison campaigners said the plans were "profoundly unfair" and "negative".

Mr Grayling said: "I have been appalled that taxpayers pay millions of pounds every year supplying lawyers for prisoners to bring unnecessary legal cases.

"The vast majority of these types of complaint can and should be dealt with by the prison service's complaints system.

"After years spiralling out of control, the amount spent on legal aid for prisoners is being tackled.

"Legal aid must be preserved for those most in need and where a lawyer's services are genuinely needed."

The move would cover issues such as the category of prison or which section of a prison an inmate was being held in, and levels of visits and correspondence.

'Legitimate challenge'

Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said it was important that prisoners had access to the courts.

He said: "The government's proposals to further curtail legal aid for prisoners are profoundly unfair and will have negative consequences for society as a whole.

"An internal complaints system is no replacement for external scrutiny by the courts, while the already stretched prison ombudsman does not have the power to provide meaningful redress.

"Without prisoners being able to access legal aid, which has already been restricted to prevent frivolous claims, we may see a collapse in justice in the very place where it should be paramount - within prison walls."

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "While no-one would support vexatious use of the law, when it comes to people deprived of their liberty and held by the State you do need safeguards to ensure that our prison system is fair, decent and open to legitimate challenge."

The announcement comes after changes to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act came into effect on Monday in England and Wales.

This saw public funding removed from entire areas of civil law, including some family cases, as ministers bid to reduce the £2.2bn legal aid bill by £350m.

There are also government proposals to reduce legal aid costs in criminal cases.

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