The law must not stop at prison gates

On 5th September the government announced that it intends to go ahead with the vast majority of the cuts to legal aid for prisoners that it proposed in April this year in the “Transforming legal aid” consultation. The Chief Executive of The Howard League, a national charity working for less crime, safer communities and less people in prison has described the government’s plans as “profoundly unfair”. She warned that they may lead to a “collapse of justice” within prisons, as prisoners will not get the help they need to rehabilitate successfully, and abuse they suffer in prisons will remain hidden. The specialist Association of Prison Lawyers warned that the plans would have a wider impact on society too: our communities are likely to be less safe, as prisoners may be released without having done the courses they need to, or without a home to go, which makes them more likely to re-offend.

The cuts to legal aid for prisoners

So what cuts are the government making, and why? Prisoners will no longer enjoy the right to legal advice and representation when they have a problem relating to:

  • how they are treated in prison, for example if they have suffered abuse, or been denied appropriate medical care;
  • the separation of mothers and babies;
  • being held in segregated isolation;
  • how they are categorised according to the severity of their crime and the risk they pose if release, which affects the conditions they are held in;
  • having access to rehabilitation courses;
  • what conditions are imposed as part of their license once they are released;
  • what arrangements are made for their resettlement on release;
  • all except the more serious disciplinary matters.

The only kinds of cases for which legal aid will remain available are those relating to the length of time a prisoner spends in prison.

Saving money? Public confidence?

The government initially argued that these cuts – like the much wider cuts to legal aid that they are part of – were necessary to restore public confidence in the legal aid system and to bear down on its costs. Both these arguments were met with widespread criticism. Legal aid is already only ever available for prisoners if they pass a financial means assessment, and if their case has enough merit. The government has not provided any evidence that the public lack confidence in how the system works. The savings that the government expect to make by cutting legal aid for most prison law cases is minimal; and in fact the cuts are likely to increased costs as people remain in prison for longer than is necessary, and resort to the far more expensive Ombudsman scheme in the absence of legal help.

What rights do prisoners deserve?

More recently the government’s real reasons for cutting legal aid for prisoners have become clear. Giving evidence to the Justice Select Committee on 3rd July, the Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling made no pretences about what these cuts are about. “It’s ideological” he said. He simply does not believe that “people in our prisons should be able to get legal aid to go to court”. That’s pretty much all he had to say on the subject. The government’s response to the consultation paper puts it slightly less bluntly: the cases for which legal aid will no longer be available are ‘not of sufficient priority’ to ‘justify the use of public money’.

The government says that the complaints system is sufficient to deal with prisoners’ problems, and if it is not that they can make a further complaint to the Ombudsman. Yet, the independent Inspectorate of Prisons has found that the complaints system “cannot be entirely relied on to consistently resolve prisoner complaints and concerns in a fair way”. This is especially true for prisoners with disabilities or mental health issues, which, as the Law Society points out are “a significant proportion of prisoners”, as well as for children and young adults, who are often “not used to making complaints and fear reprisals if they do”, according to a report from the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Moreover, as the Association of Prison Lawyers points out, the complaints system is not independent and is often not effective, because is carried out by prison staff who are not experts in complex legal issues.

Undermining prisoners’ rehabilitation and the safety of society

The government’s plans to deny legal aid to prisoners for the majority of problems they may face speaks volumes about what this government thinks about their place in society, their rights and futures. The widely accepted research which shows that prisoners are a particularly vulnerable and disadvantaged group within society, who are disproportionately likely to suffer from mental health problems, and who require particular support and protection, is ignored. The Ministry of Justice’s own commitment to work towards the rehabilitation of prisoners has become secondary to the message that this government is being ‘tough’ on people who have committed crimes.

These changes matter to us all. Firstly, because the measure of our society is the way we treat its most disadvantaged members. Like it or not, this includes people in prison, who are overwhelmingly more likely to have suffered abuse, or witnessed violence at home, or been taken into care when growing up. Prisoners do deserve to have access to justice to ensure that they can rehabilitate successfully and do not suffer abuse when they are serving their sentence. These changes also matter to us all on a practical level because important rehabilitative steps that protect the public and reduce re-offending will not be taken. Inevitably this will lead to a greater burden on the tax payer, rather than achieve any savings.

The government plans to introduce these changes in late 2013, without a proper debate in Parliament. We must act now to change them.

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