December 02 2023

Ministry of Justice to reinstate legal aid for prisoners

Ministry of Justice to reinstate legal aid for prisoners

HMP Wandsworth: Pic by Andy Aitchison

Ministry of Justice to reinstate legal aid for prisoners

The Ministry of Justice have abandoned their bid to challenge a Court of Appeal decision which ruled that cuts to legal aid for prisoners were unlawful because they are ‘inherently unfair’. Hannah Wilson reports

This sudden withdrawal by the government on a matter which was expected to go to the Supreme Court means that the Court of Appeal’s decision is final, and the government will therefore be forced to reinstate legal aid for pre-tariff reviews by the Parole Board, category-A reviews and decisions on placing inmates in close supervision centres.

This highly unexpected decision follows the department’s announcement that it has begun reviewing the impact of the major cuts to legal aid imposed in 2013, leading to hopes that there may be a greater willingness to restore legal aid to areas where it’s removal has been highly controversial.

In April 2017, in a ground-breaking victory for prisoners’ rights groups, court granted an appeal brought by the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prisoners’ Advice Service (PAS), who demanded that the decision to remove legal aid from certain categories of prison law in 2013 be judicially reviewed. Particular concerns were raised during the hearing about the profound impact of the cuts on vulnerable prisoners, including ‘the mentally unwell, those with learning and other disabilities, the illiterate, those who do not or hardly speak English, and young people’.

Acknowledging that other safeguards could have been implemented to ensure that prisoners could engage in processes or decisions about their treatment, but highlighting that these changes had not been introduced, the judges found that the current system does not have the capacity to fill the gaps left by the removal of legal aid, and so the removal of legal aid was unlawful.

The Ministry of Justice immediately declared that they intended to appeal this case to the Supreme Court. However, seven months later, before the Supreme Court had even agreed to hear the case, this appeal application has now been withdrawn.

Welcoming this decision, Laura Janes, Howard League’s legal director, said: ‘One hopes that it’s part of a wider respect for the rule of law and an understanding of the importance of access to justice for everybody.’

‘For the past seven months, hundreds of prisoners have been stuck in the system without the legal support they need to move forward, even though the court of appeal made it clear that this was inherently unfair and therefore unlawful.’

Deborah Russo, joint managing solicitor of the Prisoners’ Advice Service, said: ‘After a long wait and years of battling through the courts we … very much welcome the secretary of state’s decision to finally accept the court of appeal’s ruling of inherent unfairness of the legal aid cuts imposed on prisoners back in December 2013.’

Legal aid still remains unavailable in two areas of prison law following the 2013 cuts, namely appeals against disciplinary decisions and disputes over access to prison courses leading the way towards eventual release. Both the Howard League and the Prisoners’ Advice Service have expressed concern about the record levels of violence and self-injury in prisons since the implementation of legal aid cuts in December 2013.