Prisoner legal aid cuts appeal succeeds

A prison guard Image copyright PA

A Court of Appeal ruling over cuts to legal aid for prisoners in England and Wales has been hailed as a "ground-breaking victory".

The Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prisoners' Advice Service challenged the removal in 2013 of certain categories of prison law from the scope of criminal legal aid.

They said removing legal aid from some of the most vulnerable people in society was unfair.

Three judges ruled in their favour.

Lord Justice Beatson, sitting with Lady Justice Gloster and Lord Justice Patten, said they had focused on "vulnerable prisoners, such as those with learning disabilities and mental illness".

The Ministry of Justice said it would consider whether or not to appeal.

'Marginalised and forgotten'

The judges found that the removal of legal aid from prisoners was unlawful, because the cuts were "inherently unfair", in three situations.

These are:

  • Parole Board hearings to decide if prisoners on indeterminate sentences are ready to be transferred to open prisons
  • Reviews of Category A prisoners
  • Decisions about placing prisoners in specialist secure units within prisons.

The judges said they recognised there may be safeguards other than legal aid to ensure prisoners could engage in processes and decisions about them.

But it said almost no changes had been introduced to fill the gap left by the removal of legal aid.

Deborah Russo, joint managing solicitor of the PAS, said the "vulnerability" of the prison population had been 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."

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League, which works to reduce crime and prisoner numbers, said the ruling would ease pressure on a prison system "at breaking point".

"It vindicates our concerns that cuts imposed by the former Lord Chancellor, Chris Grayling, in 2013 presented a grave risk that prisoners would become stuck in a broken system.

"This sends a clear message that important decisions about prisoners cannot be made efficiently or fairly in the face of these cuts."

Simon Creighton, solicitor for the charities and representative for the Association of Prison Lawyers, said: "Access to legal advice for prisoners makes prisons fairer, safer and better at rehabilitating prisoners."

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