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6 Jul 2015

Court of Appeal to consider permission for Howard League for Penal Reform and Prisoners’ Advice Service to challenge scope of cuts to legal aid for prisoners

Two charities will go to court tomorrow (Tuesday 7 July) to appeal the High Court’s decision to bar a challenge to legal aid cuts for prisoners.

The cuts, which came into force 18 months ago, have coincided with an unprecedented deterioration of safety standards in English and Welsh prisons and a rise in suicides, compounded by staff shortages.

The cuts, which removed a huge range of issues from the scope of legal aid, have resulted in both charities being inundated with requests for help.

In the year following the cuts, calls to the Howard League for Penal Reform’s advice line increased by 45 per cent. The legal team, which provides the only dedicated legal service for children and young people in prison in the country, is overwhelmed with requests from young people with nowhere else to turn.

Prisoners’ Advice Service (PAS) represents adults (over-21s) and receives thousands of letters and calls each year. The charity simply does not have the physical or financial resources to deal with the large amount of requests that it now receives for pro bono assistance and representation.

The charities commenced legal action as a last resort after the then Justice Secretary dismissed concerns that the cuts would undermine prisoners’ rights and rehabilitation and cost the taxpayer more.

The Court of Appeal will consider whether to overturn the High Court’s decision in March 2014 refusing to allow the case to proceed.

The challenge involves two separate but linked judicial reviews which will be considered at an oral hearing before Lord Justice Leveson, Lord Justice Tomlinson and Lady Justice Sharp

Although the two cases concern different aspects of prison law, they both challenge restrictions to legal aid for prisoners imposed by the government in December 2013.

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.

The decision to cut legal aid for certain Parole Board cases was made without consultation. These cases affect prisoners on life sentences and IPPs who can only progress to open conditions if the Parole Board advises that it would be safe for them to do so. This is important because, once in open conditions, prisoners can apply to do work and receive education in the community. This step is key for prisoners’ rehabilitation and public safety. Making prisoners go through this stage without legal advice and representation is counter-productive.

The second case to be considered by the court concerns the removal of legal aid for prisoners facing particular difficulties such as mothers threatened with separation from their babies, children and disabled prisoners who need a support package so they can be released safely, and mentally ill prisoners held in isolation. Managing people through long prison sentences is a skilful business which needs to be handled with extreme care so that they can resettle safely into the community.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “Our legal team represents children and young people in prison. The removal of legal aid to help these children make a fresh start is contrary to the whole aim of the youth justice system which is to prevent reoffending.

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. The legal aid cuts to prison law have resulted in prisoners’ access to justice being severely curtailed. The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, the Chief Inspectorate of Prisons and the Parole Board have all expressed grave concern at legal aid cuts for prisoners. These cuts are further isolating an already very marginalised sector of our society.”

Notes to editors

  1. The Justice Committee’s year-long inquiry into the impact of the Government’s programme of reforms and efficiency savings across the prison estate raised concerns about the deterioration in safety. The report was published in March 2015 and is available here: http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/justice-committee/news/report-prisons-planning-and-policies/
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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

Rob Preece
Press Officer
The Howard League for Penal Reform
Tel: +44 (0)20 7241 7880
Mobile: +44 (0)7714 604955

Email: robert.preece@howardleague.org

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

For enquiries outside normal office hours, please call +44 (0)7918 681094.

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

Email:  deborah.russo@prisonersadvice.org.uk

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