Under the proposals prisoners will no longer receive legal aid be represented in challenging important issues related to their imprisonment, such as whether or not women prisoners can care for their newborn babies in prison; where prisoners will live on release; and how they will be supported to avoid reoffending in the future. Here are some examples of what that will means in practice.
A prisoner whose son was diagnosed with a brain tumour and given a very short life expectancy made an application for temporary release from prison so that he would be able to have contact with his son. He was granted one visit, but when his request for more was turned down, even though his son’s mother wanted him to be able to see their child. Thanks to legal aid he challenged this refusal, and was granted further visits. Under the proposals legal aid will not be available to challenge decisions to refuse home leave, so the prisoner would not have been able to see his son more often.
Mother & Baby Units
A female prisoner who is due to give birth in 10 weeks is refused a place on the Mother & Baby Unit where she would be allowed to look after her baby while in prison following a negative recommendation made by Social Services. Thanks to legal aid, she instructs a lawyer who examines her Social Services file and finds that the allegations they have made about her behaviour are unsubstantiated. Her lawyer prepares statements from her family and professionals who have previously been involved in her care, which lead to her being granted a place in the Mother & Baby Unit. Under the proposals there will be no legal aid for a female prisoner to challenge a decision about whether she should be given a place on a Mother & Baby Unit.
A prisoner who has a history of mental health problems and severe self-harming is held in segregation after he is placed on the escape list. He denies having threatened to escape and complains that he is not being subject to regular reviews. His complaints are ignored. Thanks to legal aid, his lawyers obtain security reports that show that the allegation that the prisoner had threatened to escape was false. His lawyers also argue that special consideration needs to be given to the fact that the prisoner is vulnerable and suffers from mental health problems when deciding whether he should remain in segregation. Eventually the prison agrees to take the prisoner off the escape list and take him out to segregation.
Access to rehabilitation schemes
A prisoner has received a mandatory life sentence with a minimum tariff (time to serve) of 10 years imprisonment. Years after his tariff ends his case is reviewed by the Parole Board who recommend whether he should remain in closed conditions or whether he has rehabilitated to the point that he can be moved to open conditions. For years the prison service do not properly explore or investigate the prisoner’s risk. For example they do not confirm that he suffers from autism, and they do not provide him with individual input from medical experts he needs, even after the parole board have identified that he needs this. Only thanks to the work of his legal aid lawyers, the prisoner gets the help he needs, and has a meaningful parole board review which leads to a transfer to open conditions where he is doing well.
A 17 year old who is serving a sentence in an open prison is found guilty of assaulting another prisoner and moved back to closed conditions. The young man is barely able to read and write and does not understand whether he can challenge this decision or not. His legal aid lawyer uncovers evidence that the hearing, which led to him being found guilty of assault, was unfair and appeals against the decision. The appeal is successful and the young man is eventually returned to open conditions, which means he will serve a shorter time in custody, which will save tax payers’ money.