Legal aid cuts delaying rehabilitation in prison, court will hear

Cuts are further obstacle to getting ready for release, say penal charities

private companies receive financial penalties for contract failures.

Barrier: cuts are further obstacle to securing release, say penal reform groups. Photograph: x1klima

A case arguing that cuts to legal aid for prisoners are unfair and unlawful will be heard before the Court of Appeal today.

Incidents of violence and self-harm in prisons have reached record highs since the cuts came into force in December 2013 – although violence and self-harm had been consistently rising for years prior to that.

In July 2015 two charities, the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prisoners’ Advice Service (PAS), won the right to challenge the government’s decision to cut legal aid for prisoners. Three Court of Appeal judges will over the course of a two-day hearing hear the charities’ full arguments against the cuts.

“Within the prison population are some of the most vulnerable members of society,” the claimants have outlined in their skeleton argument.

“There is a huge over-representation of the mentally unwell, those suffering from learning or other disability and the illiterate.

“For a proportion of those prisoners the removal of legal aid makes it impossible for them to engage fairly in decision making processes that will have a huge impact on their lives, rendering those decision making processes inherently unfair.”

The cuts mean that prisoners seeking a transfer to an open prison are denied legal representation unless they can pay.

The changes also mean that prisoners who are stuck in the system – such as those serving certain indeterminate sentences – cannot get legal help to access the courses they need to become safe for release.

More prisoners than ever before have called the Howard League and PAS to seek help. The charities say that calls to their advice lines have collectively increased by almost 50 per cent since the cuts were imposed.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said that at a time when prisons are “out of control”, access to justice was more important than ever.

“We currently have a situation where a child or mentally ill person can be denied the option of asking for funded representation, even when they are struggling to progress through the convoluted prison system. This is unjust and must be challenged.”

Deborah Russo, Joint Managing Solicitor of the Prisoners’ Advice Service, said: “We […] sincerely hope the Court will be able to see the plight of prisoners and how these swingeing cuts have so severely curtailed their ability to access justice.”

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