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Further Cuts to Legal Aid for Prisoners

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Justice Secretary Christopher Grayling continued his attack on the Legal Aid budget this month announcing further cuts to legal aid in civil and criminal matters, including funding for prison law matters.

Mr Grayling, a career politician and the only Lord Chancellor in modern times with no legal qualifications, launched another scathing attack on publically funded legal work stating in this month’s Transforming Legal Aid consultation paper that taxpayer’s money was being used to fund frivolous claims and to foot the bills of wealthy criminals.

Amongst the frankly devastating reforms proposed to funding for civil and criminal matters and judicial review, the plans include the proposal that legal aid funding for prisoners would be further restricted, having of course already been cut in 2009 and further restrictions on work implemented in 2010. Despite the previous cuts, Grayling still said: ‘I have been appalled that taxpayers pay millions of pounds every year supplying lawyers for prisoners to bring unnecessary legal cases’. Mr Grayling fails to point out until deep into the 160 page document that funding for prison law accounts for less than 1.5% of the current legal aid spend.

Nonetheless, in what can only be described as an affront to justice, savings of £4 million are to be made by reducing prisoner’s claims by 11,000 cases per year. Alarmingly, the type of cases which are deemed ‘unnecessary’ are those that relate to treatment of prisoners by the prison service itself, for example appealing categorisation or internal prison policies such as relating to visits, correspondence, availability of courses etc. These have been deemed to be matters that do not justify the use of public funds. Most prisoners will no doubt be aware of the existing difficulties in applying for funding for such matters. The new proposals confirm that such funding would be removed entirely, it not being a sufficient priority for which the use of public funds can be justified.

Where legal aid is unavailable, prisoners will be expected to rely on internal prison complaints mechanisms and the Independent Prisons and Probations Ombudsmen for redress. Such forms of redress of course are not only already over stretched, but also do not have the robustness of the external scrutiny of a court of law, nor the equivalent power to rectify injustice. To restrict justice for prisoners is profoundly unfair and extremely detrimental to the 83,000+ persons held by the state (as of February 2013). Particular examples of problems that could require legal redress include the use of solitary confinement, categorically proven to exacerbate mental health conditions and withdrawal of, or exclusion from, behavioral programmes that can be crucial to offender management and rehabilitation, and therefore reduction in the likelihood of re-offending. Sentence appeals and matters where detention is being reviewed, such as parole hearings, will still receive legal aid under the proposals though evidence must be provided that other avenues of redress have been exhausted.

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