More clashes over ideology as peers look at cuts to legal aid for prisoners

jail indoor

Legal aid cuts for prisoners “reversed 35 years of progress” said Lord Pannick, as peers attacked Chris Grayling’s “ideological” reforms.

The House of Lords highlighted concerns over the impact of the Criminal Legal Aid (General) (Amendment) Regulations 2013 which restricts legal aid in prison law cases. “My Lords, another week, another set of legal aid regulations to regret,” said Lord Pannick as he moved a motion to regret.

His concerns were echoed by fellow peers including barrister Baroness Helena Kennedy. “It is as though it is not enough to go to prison and lose your liberty, and experience the deprivations that we know imprisonment means, so we are looking for other ways to punish,” she said.

Pannick cited four examples of cases where legal aid would no longer be available as a result of the regulations. The first being Parole Board proceedings for indeterminate sentence prisoners where the Secretary of State referred a case before the expiry of the minimum term for advice on a move to open conditions. “It is very surprising that the Secretary of State should have proceeded with the changes despite the concerns expressed by the Parole Board,” said Pannick. The Parole Board having previously reminded ministers (in its evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights) that there was “a great deal at stake for prisoners” in such cases.

Other examples included decisions to place or keep a prisoner in Category A high security conditions; the allocation of places in mother and baby units (so vulnerable women would be denied access to legal advice on whether they should be separated from their babies); and segregation decisions.

The QC argued that the main reasons given by the Justice Secretary were “ideological”. “Indeed, he used that word three times in as many minutes in response to questions on this matter,” said Pannick. See Clashes over ‘ideology’ in Lords.

“I do not believe that prisoners in jail should have the right to access legal aid to debate which prison they are put in.”
Chris Grayling to the Justice Committee

“This is to reverse 35 years of progress in the approach adopted by the legal system to the treatment of prisoners,” Pannick said; adding that the “modern era of prison law” began in 1978 when the Court of Appeal insisted on fair disciplinary proceedings following the Hull prison riots. “Since that decision, our courts have repeatedly made it clear that administrative decisions in prison must comply with basic standards of legality, procedural fairness and rationality,” the barrister continued.

Helena Kennedy flagged up the impact of the regulations on the mother and baby units. The barrister had acted in such cases where a woman sought to prepare for an application to have her baby remain with her. “It is impossible for a woman to do that without the help of a solicitor,” she argued.

She recalled a fellow peer telling her that speaking in defence of legal aid in the debate was “hopeless”. “My response to that was that it may be hopeless, but I hope that by having this debate some members of the Government will feel shame… . I hope that a feeling of shame will enter into discussions among the Government and between the coalition partners about the impact of this on the lives of some of the most fragile people in our society.”

Baroness Butler-Sloss referenced an e-mail from a committee member of the Young Legal Aid Lawyers identifying vulnerable groups such as mothers and babies. “As a former family judge, it is the baby that I worry about. There is no one to speak for the baby; he or she is removed from the mother, with all the emotional harm that is done to a baby in those circumstances, even if that mother and baby are reunited at a later stage,” she said.

Another group identified by YLAL was vulnerable adults. “In our prisons there is a very high percentage of people with mental health problems,” Butler-Sloss said. “Some have single mental health problems; many have multiple problems. There is also no shortage of people without education and with learning disabilities. How on earth are they to cope with putting forward whatever is the issue that needs to be put forward if they do not have someone to help them?”

Butler-Sloss pointed out that the regulations would only save an estimated £4 million and that lawyers were paid a fixed fee of £220. If the cuts were “ideological”, then “the money does not matter”, she reasoned. “But I suspect that for the rest of the Government money matters very much. It is not very much money and it saves a great deal.”

About Jon Robins

Jon is a journalist and has written about the law and justice for the national papers and specialist press for more than 15 years. Jon is a visiting journalism lecturer at Winchester University, a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln and patron of Hackney Community Law Centre. He has won the Bar Council’s legal reporter of the year award twice (2015 and 2005). Jon is editor and co-founder of LegalVoice

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