Cuts to legal aid for prisoners have been ruled unlawful, following a battle between campaigners and the government in the Court of Appeal. Four years ago, former justice secretary Chris Grayling introduced cuts which prevented inmates in some prisons from accessing aid for various legal processes inside prison. But campaigners challenged the government and last week, judges decided the cuts were “inherently unfair”. The ruling has been celebrated as a ground-breaking victory by the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prisoners’ Advice Service, who brought the judicial review claim. It is hoped the verdict will help to ensure that inmates are treated fairly, rather than becoming “stuck in a broken system”.
Government ‘Had No Replacement for Legal Aid’
In 2013, the Ministry of Justice made cuts which meant inmates in certain categories of prison could no longer access legal aid. Since then, campaigners have been fighting against the restrictions, arguing that they are fundamentally unfair. On April 10, judges ruled that the restrictions were unlawful in the parole board’s pre-tariff reviews, category A reviews and rulings on placing inmates in close supervision centres.
The judges’ unanimous judgment said: “The government’s decision to remove legal aid from the five categories of decision-making that are the subject of these proceedings by the 2013 [cuts] was made because it considers that there were adequate alternative means in place to ensure prisoners can participate effectively in areas in which support has hitherto been provided by legal advice and legal representation.
“The consequence is that almost no changes have been introduced to replace the gap left by the removal of legal aid. We have concluded that, at a time when … the evidence about prison staffing levels, the current state of prisons, and the workload of the Parole Board suggests that the system is under considerable pressure, the system has at present not got the capacity sufficiently to fill the gap in the run of cases in those three areas.”
Before the case went to court in January, the Ministry of Justice agreed to a series of concessions: they conceded that legal aid should not be restricted in cases involving resettlement, mothers and babies and licence conditions. But the restrictions still affected a number of important areas for prisoners:
- Pre-tariff reviews on whether to move an inmate to open conditions
- Reviews of the categorisation of Category A high-security prisoners.
- Access to offending behaviour courses
- Decisions on whether to move an inmate to a close supervision centre
- Disciplinary proceedings where no extra time in prison could be given
The judges found the restrictions to be unfair in three of these, ruling that prisoners should have access to aid to pay for legal representation in areas 1, 2, 4. Following the verdict, the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s chief executive Rebecca Hilsenrath said: “A hallmark of a democratic legal system is that it is fair and robust for all users.
“Without access to legal aid, prisoners with learning difficulties and mental illness would not be able to participate effectively in important decisions about their future, placing them at a significant disadvantage. We welcome today’s judgment that will ensure our legal system continues to provide legal help during these hearings.”
‘Ground-Breaking Legal Victory’
Campaigners have celebrated the victory, saying it will result in fairer treatment for prisoners and greater safety for the public.
Deborah Russo, joint managing solicitor of the Prisoners’ Advice Service, said: “This is an unprecedented and ground-breaking legal victory in which the vulnerability of the prison population is fully recognised as a key factor in its limited ability to access justice.
“Common law came to the rescue of a marginalised and often forgotten sector of our society.”
Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “This decision will make the public safer. It vindicates our concerns that cuts imposed by the former Lord Chancellor, Chris Grayling, in 2013 presented a grave risk that prisoners would become stuck in a broken system.
“This sends a clear message that important decisions about prisoners cannot be made efficiently or fairly in the face of these cuts. We look forward to hearing from the Lord Chancellor with her plans to give effect to the judgment.”