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13 Oct 2016

Holding the system to account: Court of Appeal to hear case of boy who was detained in prison after he should have been released

The Court of Appeal is to hear legal argument on whether the State should be held accountable after a child was detained in prison after he should have been released.

The boy, who is represented by the Howard League for Penal Reform, was detained for an extra 11 days in Ashfield prison, near Bristol, following a disciplinary hearing before a district judge in 2012. The High Court later issued an order to set aside the decision on the basis that it had been unlawful.

In October 2014, the High Court made a further ruling that the boy was entitled to compensation. That ruling is now being appealed by the Secretary of State for Justice, with the case listed to be heard in the Court of Appeal today.

The award of compensation is nominal, but the issue is important. The possibility of financial compensation for a child who is detained for additional time following an unlawful decision is an important way of holding the system to account, to ensure fairness and guard against future mistakes.

The Howard League has published research on how prisons in England and Wales operate disciplinary hearings, called adjudications, where allegations of rule-breaking are tried.

A prisoner found guilty at an adjudication can face punishments ranging from loss of canteen to solitary confinement and extra days of imprisonment.

Figures released by the Ministry of Justice in May 2016 showed that more than one million days – or 2,890 years – of additional imprisonment had been imposed on prisoners in the previous six years.

The number of additional days imposed on prisoners increased by almost 38 per cent between 2014 and 2015.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “The punishment system for breaking prison rules has resulted in an explosion in the number of extra days imposed on people, including children. The system itself is causing chaos in prisons and, as this case shows, mistakes are made.

“Where prisoners are wrongly detained as a result of prison adjudications, accountability should not be tossed aside simply because the unlawful detention has only been accepted after the time has been served.”

Background to the case

The boy at the centre of this case, identified in court as MA, is one of seven children who were unlawfully punished after they were involved in a protest over conditions in Serco-run Ashfield prison, near Bristol, in February 2012.

The protest was witnessed by a district judge, who was visiting the site in his role as an Independent Adjudicator. Despite being invited to recuse himself from either conducting the boys’ adjudication hearings or passing sentence, he declined and imposed additional days’ imprisonment on each of them.

In May 2012, the High Court issued an order setting aside the decision to convict and further detain the boys, on the basis that the Independent Adjudicator’s decision had been unlawful.

MA was the only child who had already started serving the additional days. As a result of the order, the other children did not have to serve them.

The order was part of a wider challenge brought by the Howard League against Ashfield prison in 2012.

The judgment found that children in the prison were subject to an unlawful “shadow segregation” regime. It revealed deep-rooted problems in the prison, including a “wholly inadequate system” for disclosing case papers with senior staff having a “woeful absence of knowledge” about their legal duties.

Ashfield stopped holding children in 2013. It is now a Category C prison for men, still operated by Serco.

Notes to editors

  1. The Howard League for Penal Reform is the oldest penal reform charity in the world. It is a national charity working for less crime, safer communities and fewer people in prison.
  1. A Howard League report, Punishment in prison: The world of prison discipline, can be downloaded from the charity’s website.
  1. The Howard League’s legal team is the only front line national legal team specialising in the legal rights and entitlements of children and young people in custody.
  1. Counsel is Caoilfhionn Gallagher of Doughty Street Chambers.


Rob Preece
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