Following the successful legal challenge brought by two charities, legal aid was reinstated for three important areas of prison law from 21 February 2018.
The Prisoners’ Advice Service (PAS) and the Howard League for Penal Reform brought a judicial review of the decision of the then lord chancellor, Chris Grayling, to remove most of prison law from the scope of legal aid. The cuts came into force in December 2013, but the Court of Appeal ruled that they were unlawful in April 2017 ( EWCA Civ 244
) and the Ministry of Justice withdrew its appeal against the judgment last October (see December 2017/January 2018 Legal Action
LAG chair Laura Janes, who is also the legal director at the Howard League, said the cuts to legal aid had 'coincided with record high prison numbers, self-injury and suicide rates. For those of us who visit prisons week in and week out, as I do, it has never been so grim, even for children’. Both the Howard League and PAS have reported increases in calls to their advice lines. The Howard League said that calls to its service had leapt by 62 per cent since the cuts came into force and PAS said calls to its service increased from 14,000 to 25,000 last year.
The three types of case restored to scope are:
•pre-tariff reviews before the Parole Board where it advises the justice secretary on whether a prisoner would be suitable for a move to open conditions (these reviews concern prisoners with indeterminate sentences);
•categorisation reviews of category A prisoners held in high-security prisons; and
•placement in close supervision centres.
Janes said the loss of legal aid had put financial pressure on the Howard League, which continued to act for some prisoners in these cases. She continued: ‘The government has paid heed to the judgment, and we hope it will make a positive difference. Our concern is that during the years of drought, as with other areas of legal aid, many providers have given up or lost their expertise.’
The nature of this victory is demonstrated by the fact that this is the first time any area of law has been brought back into scope following the December 2013 cuts. Deborah Russo, joint managing solicitor at PAS, said: 'This is clearly only part of the fight to re-establish a decent, fair and universal legal aid system; however, it is a step in the right direction, which we are proud to have been able to take.'