Prisoner charities win right to challenge legal aid cuts

The Court of Appeal has overturned a High Court block on challenging the legitimacy of not allowing any prisoner legal aid funding, ruling that the system could be unfair and unlawful.

Unlike cuts to other areas of legal aid, cuts to prisoners’ legal aid were made absolute, with no safety net even for very vulnerable or incapacitated prisoners to apply for legal aid for prison law matters.  

Lord Justice Leveson led the decision to accept the pleas of The Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prisoners’ Advice Service (PAS) to proceed to full trial on the implications of the 2012 act on prisoners.

The decision coincides with the start of barrister strikes, with many lawyers denying Crown Court work in protest of the adverse effects of funding cuts brought by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 on the wider legal community.

Today’s decision highlighted that the prison service is an area of the profession where the impact of the austerity measures has been particularly discriminatory.

“The question of inherent unfairness concerns not simply the structure of the system which may be capable of operating fairly, but whether there are mechanisms in place to accommodate the arguably higher risk of unfair decisions for those with mental health, learning or other difficulties,” concluded Leveson. 

In oral argument heard on 7 July by Leveson alongside Lord Justice Tomlinson and Lady Sharp the key areas of contention as a result of the legal aid cuts, included cases before the parole board about a move to open conditions, prisoner segregation and eligibility for highly sought after places in mother and baby units.

One of the charities which won the right to challenge the cuts was the Howard League for Penal Reform, which provides support to children and young people in prison. The charity has seen a marked increase in concerns of young people since the cuts, with a 45 per cent increase in calls to their advice line service.

Chief executive Frances Crook said “We welcome today’s decision, which offers hope to children and young people in prison.”

The Prisoners’ Advice Service, an organisation which represents adult prisoners over the age of 21, also stated it was pleased with the decision. Without legal aid they lack the financial resources to deal with the increasing demand for pro bono assistance.

Deborah Russo, joint managing solicitor at the Prisoners’ Advice Service, said: “We are delighted with the outcome of today’s hearing. The legal aid cuts to prison law have resulted in prisoners’ access to justice being severely curtailed with the consequence of further isolating an already very marginalised sector of our society.”

“We therefore welcome today’s judgment, which now allows for a full hearing of the case and are thrilled to be now given the opportunity to put forward our case for legal aid for the most deprived and disadvantaged of prisoners.”

The Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prisoners’ Advice Service are jointly represented by Simon Creighton of Bhatt Murphy Solicitors, Philippa Kaufmann of Matrix Chambers and Martha Spurrier and Alex Gask of Doughty Street Chambers.