WE ARE A MAGAZINE ABOUT LAW AND JUSTICE | AND THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE TWO
February 19 2024
WE ARE A MAGAZINE ABOUT LAW AND JUSTICE | AND THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE TWO
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Criminal Lawyers face alarming barriers to accessing their clients in prison, reveals report.

Criminal Lawyers face alarming barriers to accessing their clients in prison, reveals report.

A new report by the Association of Prison Lawyers (APL) has found criminal lawyers face countless barriers to meeting their clients within prison. This has significant implications for access to justice and the fundamental right of a client to see their lawyer.

The report found the offer of face-to-face visits with clients was exceptionally limited in a number of prisons with appointment times often only being offered once a week. Some lawyers also flagged that their client will often be brought to the meeting late, or not at all, due to staff shortages or other issues within the prison. Even where a visit can be secured, these are often ineffective with conditions that are far from adequate. Meetings will be held within busy visiting halls, which means a lack of privacy for confidential discussions and, in some cases, a denial of authorised laptops.

There is no central system for prisons within the UK, which means there are different obstacles dependent on where their client is situated.  In an effort to avoid the inefficiency and difficulty of in-person meetings, lawyers have sought to make use of video technology which was used during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, some lawyers reported being ‘point-blank’ refused access to the video-link facilities. The report has identified 16 prisons which have told practitioners that they do not offer any video links to solicitors.

In commenting on the findings, Rikki Garg, Chairman of the APL emphasised the importance of lawyers being able to see their clients ‘to protect their fundamental rights, to ensure access to justice and minimise delays in the system.’

Similarly, Chris Minnoch, Director of Legal Aid Practitioners Group, said that ‘Timely and effective access to specialist advice is crucial for prisoners and a vital element of the justice system.’ He explained that the legal aid system should be ensuring access to legal advice and representation, but the last few decades have seen it being ‘undermined by limits to scope, unnecessary bureaucracy and chronic underfunding.’

These barriers which impede criminal lawyers from effectively carrying out their duties is having a demoralizing impact. The number of prison law legal aid providers has already been deteriorating, falling by 85% since 2008. In September 2022, prison law legal aid lawyers were excluded from the pay increase of 15% following the Bellamy review, and the APL has previously reported that, in real terms, the rate of pay for prison law has decreased by 35% since 2011. This previous report also found that three-quarters of prison lawyers who responded to the survey did not think they would be doing prison law legal aid work in three years’ time.

The findings of the most recent APL report only further demonstrate the problems currently facing prisons across the UK. Pia Sinha, Chief Executive of the Prison Reform Trust, explained: ‘In an overcrowded and overstretched prison system the essentials of a fair and just regime can get left behind. But timely access to legal advice for people in prison should not be an added extra.’