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Howard League blog · 17 Aug 2018

Notes from an adjudication hearing

It seems apposite today to post a guest blog about justice in prisons. The Ministry of Justice is making exorbitant claims about making ten of the worst-performing prisons into models for the rest to follow, and all in one year.

At the beginning of the week we published a briefing paper showing that prisons are resorting to draconian punishments in a desperate attempt to maintain order. Most of the ten prisons identified by ministers for the extra money to turn them into paragons are near the top of our list of prisons imposing additional days of imprisonment.

The Howard League provides legal support to children and young adults going through the disciplinary processes in prison. Our legal team benefits from pro bono help from Clifford Chance, one of the big five law firms. This was the experience of one of our trainees. It illustrates our contention, based on years of experience, that resorting to capricious punishments simply makes things worse.

We will be writing to the prisons minister to tell him that we will be monitoring his ten prisons to make sure they stop doing this. We will use the number of additional days imposed as an indicator of the success of this pilot.

The trainee solicitor (who was accompanying a Howard League solicitor) wrote:

We got through security at the gate and were collected by a prison officer alongside the independent adjudicator. The independent adjudicator seemed very friendly with the officer. We were escorted down to the segregation unit and requested the papers from the prison officer. We then met our client in the telephone room, which had no chairs, and were locked in during our meeting with him. The client seemed surprisingly calm and we went through the case and the papers with him, asking necessary questions to ascertain his version of the events. It was the client’s first independent adjudication (IA) during his time in custody so we also explained the procedure for him.

A prison officer came to let us out of the telephone room and took us to the IA room, where the independent adjudicator and a prison officer were sitting at the desk in a cramped room. We entered the room first, before the client was led in and asked to say his name and prison number. He was then allowed to sit down, directly opposite the independent adjudicator.

The independent adjudicator asked the client a series of questions very quickly, followed by the officer who read out the relevant records and the charge. I was impressed that the client caught the questions given how quickly they were speaking. They did not give the impression that they cared about the client’s responses and seemed to be rushing through the procedure, even though there were only seven young people due to be adjudicated that day.

I left wondering how teenagers who attend independent adjudications without legal representation could possibly cope

After the initial questions, we raised procedural arguments which the independent adjudicator dismissed resolutely, saying that she would take the prison officers’ records on face value and not look beyond what is on the record. When we moved onto the substantive defence, the independent adjudicator kept interrupting and questioning us. She did not allow reliance on case law because we did not have a full copy of the judgment with us. She demanded that we back up each argument with evidence, but was happy to make assumptions on the prison staff’s decisions and actions. She also suggested that the crux of our argument seemed to be challenging the decision-maker’s decision and asked whether she wanted to call the governor in. There was an element of warning/threat in her tone.

We asked for a short break so we could take the client’s instructions. We were taken back to the telephone room, where we discussed the independent adjudicator’s unfavourable attitude, how we would seek to advance one last defence and put forward mitigation factors. The client commented on how scary the independent adjudicator seemed.

We returned to the IA room and the independent adjudicator asked if the client wanted to change his plea. The client pleaded “guilty” and we then moved on to mitigation factors and sentencing. The independent adjudicator seemed severe when she imposed extra days on our client, looking at the client and proclaiming that prisons cannot be run on inmates dictating to prison staff.

After the IA was over, we had a short meeting with the client in another locked room to debrief and discuss next steps. The client seemed resigned to his fate. I left wondering how teenagers who attend IAs without legal representation could possibly cope, with only people who are against them (the independent adjudicator and the prison officer) in the IA room and the process, without the paperwork and without legal knowledge…


  • Tara Blick says:

    This seems to be happening more and more with young adults and children frightened to even challenge or allowed to speak at these adjudications At Hmp Feltham they are not even being asked if they wanted Legal Representation in fact being totally ignored if they do, Very , very concerning!!

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