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17 Mar 2014

Howard League for Penal Reform and Prisoners’ Advice Service to appeal High Court decision on legal aid cuts for prisoners

The Howard League and the Prisoners’ Advice Service (PAS) announced today (17 March) that they will appeal after the High Court dismissed a legal challenge to legal aid cuts for prisoners.

The charities went to court earlier this month to seek two separate but linked judicial reviews against restrictions to legal aid imposed by the government in December 2013.

The Howard League and PAS argued that the cuts create an inherently unfair system.

In a 30-page judgment by Mr Justice Cranston, with Lady Justice Rafferty, the High Court has recognised that legal aid cuts for prisoners may well be unfair and may not even save costs. But it concluded that these are political issues not legal ones.

The court appeared to accept the arguments from the Lord Chancellor that prisoners could use the prisoner complaints system and, ultimately, judicial review to resolve their issues, while at the same time accepting that all these mechanisms “have their drawbacks and gaps” and that “none may match the assistance which has been provided by lawyers, including those from the claimants, under the existing system of criminal legal aid for prison law”.

In dismissing the charities’ application for permission, the court stated:

“We can well understand the concerns ventilated through these claims.  A range of impressive commentators have argued that the changes to criminal legal aid for prison law in the Criminal Aid (General) (Amendment) Regulations 2013, SI 2013, No 2790 will have serious adverse effects for prisoners.”

While the court concluded that the changes to legal aid for prisoners did not arguably constitute unlawful action by the Lord Chancellor, it did not dismiss the possibility of successful future challenges. Rather, it found that “[f]or the time being the forum for advancing these concerns remains the political”.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “Our legal team represents children and young people in prison. These cuts will not result in savings for the taxpayer. On the contrary, they will result in increased costs as children remain in prison for longer than is necessary for want of a safe home to go to. We will take this to the Court of Appeal as the High Court made fundamental errors in its understanding of some of the key points. It did not properly deal with the concerns of the Joint Committee on Human Rights that the complaints system cannot be effective in certain cases. The court completely failed to address how unfairness would not arise in particular situations where prisoners are unrepresented. These include parole board hearings where secret evidence is used against the prisoner or other cases which turn on expert evidence that cannot be commissioned without legal representation and funding.”

Deborah Russo, Joint Managing Solicitor at the Prisoners’ Advice Service, said: “PAS provides legal advice to all adult prisoners in England and Wales. We run an advice line and receive thousands of letters and telephone calls from prisoners each year. PAS also represents prisoners by taking on legal cases where appropriate. We are deeply disappointed with this judgment, which fails to respond to the increased unfairness prisoners now face as a result of the latest round of legal aid cuts. The Court is right to say that this is a political issue; however that does not mean that it is one in which the law cannot intervene if prisoners’ fundamental rights of access to legal remedies are being breached.” We intend to appeal the judgment and will continue to press for these cuts to be reversed and for prisoners to be provided with adequate advice and representation to defend their legal rights.”

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.
  2. The Prisoners’ Advice Service is an independent registered charity which provides legal advice and information to prisoners in England and Wales regarding their rights, the application of the Prison Rules and conditions of imprisonment.
  3. The charities seek two judicial reviews concerning different aspects of prison law. The first case argues that the removal of legal aid for a small number of important Parole Board cases is unlawful. The second argues that the removal of legal aid for a range of cases affecting prisoners’ progress through their sentence towards release is also unlawful.
  4. The High Court itself decided that the two cases should be argued at an oral hearing. This is different from most other requests for permission for a judicial review, which are either granted or rejected based on the strength of written submissions to the court.
  5. The Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prisoners’ Advice Service are jointly represented in these cases by Simon Creighton of Bhatt Murphy Solicitors, Phillippa Kaufmann of Matrix Chambers, and Martha Spurrier and Alex Gask of Doughty Street Chambers.

Further information

Andrew Neilson
Director of Campaigns
The Howard League for Penal Reform
Tel: +44 (0)20 7241 7868
Mobile: +44 (0)7918 681094

ISDN line available on 020 7923 4196 – uses a G722 system

Deborah Russo
Joint Managing Solicitor
The Prisoners Advice Service
Tel: +44 (0)20 7253 3600

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