Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Criminals to face legal aid ban

A consultation on plans to cut access to legal aid for cases such as an inmate appealing against the category of jail they are in has been launched

Convicted criminals would be barred from claiming legal aid to fund cases involving complaints about the prison system under plans announced by the Government.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said he had been "appalled" that taxpayers' money was being used to allow prisoners to bring "unnecessary legal cases" which could be dealt with by the Prison Service's internal complaints system.

Announcing a consultation on the plans, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said they would annually save £4 million and cut the number of cases brought by prisoners by 11,000.

The proposal comes days after reforms to legal aid came into effect as the Government moves to reduce its £2.2 billion legal aid bill by £350 million.

Mr Grayling said: "I have been appalled that taxpayers pay millions of pounds every year supplying lawyers for prisoners to bring unnecessary legal cases. The vast majority of these types of complaint can and should be dealt with by the Prison Service's complaints system. After years spiralling out of control, the amount spent on legal aid for prisoners is being tackled. Legal aid must be preserved for those most in need and where a lawyer's services are genuinely needed."

The plan would cut access to legal aid for cases such as a prisoner appealing against the category of prison they are held in, a decision to move them to a different section within a prison or taking legal action over issues such as visits or correspondence, the MoJ said.

The proposals will be included in a consultation on changes to legal aid to be published shortly, a spokesman said. Currently there is an internal prison requests and complaints system and on top of that an Independent Prisons and Probation Ombudsman to which appeals can be made. Cases where prisoners are appealing against a sentence or where their actual detention is being reviewed - such as at a parole hearing - would still receive legal aid, the MoJ said.

Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: "The Government's proposals to further curtail legal aid for prisoners are profoundly unfair and will have negative consequences for society as a whole. The misuse of solitary confinement can exacerbate mental health problems and lead to lost lives. Access to behavioural programmes or help with resettlement can mean the difference between a prisoner going on to change their life for the better or to reoffend.

"An internal complaints system is no replacement for external scrutiny by the courts, while the already stretched Prison Ombudsman does not have the power to provide meaningful redress. Without prisoners being able to access legal aid, which has already been restricted to prevent frivolous claims, we may see a collapse in justice in the very place where it should be paramount - within prison walls."

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "It's important that the Justice Secretary is opening a consultation rather than, as it might sound, presenting a fait accompli. While no one would support vexatious use of the law, when it comes to people deprived of their liberty and held by the state you do need safeguards to ensure that our prison system is fair, decent and open to legitimate challenge."

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