Two charities are challenging the removal of legal aid from internal prison hearings due to it being ‘inherently unfair.’
The court of appeal has been told that thousands of prisoners are being prevented from starting rehabilitation due to them being denied legal aid for parole board hearings, reports the Guardian.
Lawyers for two charities have said that the present system was “inherently unfair” and that it provides no support for inmates who are incapable of representing themselves.
The appeal, brought jointly by the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prisoners’ Advice Service, is the latest in a series of attempts to reverse cuts that have removed more than £600m from the criminal and civil legal aid budget. Arguing that taxpayers are now having to pay to keep prisoners inside for longer than is necessary.
“Without a move to open conditions, a standard indeterminate-sentence prisoner will almost certainly never be released,” the charities’ submission to the court said.
“At the heart of parole board decisions in relation to indeterminate-sentence prisoners is the question of risk. To assist the parole board in reaching a decision on risk, expert evidence from psychiatrists or psychologists is always presented by the secretary of state. Equality of arms [equal representation] can only be secured if the prisoner can present his own independent expert report, the parole board having no power or funds to commission its own.”
Phillippa Kaufmann QC, representing the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prisoner Advisory service, said: “This is systematic unfairness. All areas of prison law have been removed from the scope of legal aid. Many prisoners cannot access the process themselves. Prisoners live in a closed world. They can’t access outside resources. They can’t go to the Citizens Advice Bureau. The complaints systems and the ombudsman system do not provide the fairness that is lacking [in the current system].”
Outside the court, Deborah Russo, from the Prisoner Advice Service, said: “Prisoners are ending up spending more time inside, so it costs the taxpayer more. Pre-tariff prisoners cannot get legal aid and therefore can’t be represented at parole board hearings. It can hinder their progress. Life-sentence prisoners are unrepresented and get stuck in the system.”
Simon Creighton, of the law firm Bhatt Murphy Solicitors, which is representing the charities, said: “Restrictions to legal aid for prisoners are deeply unfair as there is no safety net of ‘exceptional funding’. However, they also unlikely to save costs or enhance public protection as they will result in people spending longer in prison and missing out on offending behaviour courses and rehabilitative work.”
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