When is legal aid available for prison law

I receive multiple letters a month from prisoners asking me to help them with issues for which there is no legal aid funding.  The matters they want me to help them with are not in scope for legal aid. Sadly in most cases I have to decline to help.

I also receive emails from Solicitors asking me if there is legal aid for various issues and again, I have to tell them no.  I have found myself over the last 12 months repeating so many times when legal aid is available for prison law that I have decided to write this post.  I hope this information is helpful.

Legal aid is currently at the time I am writing this available for prison law for the following issues :

Parole – upon tariff expiry

Licence Recall

Pre-Tariff Sift Cases which is essentially an application by life sentence prisoners to apply for open conditions  (back in scope from February 2018)

Advice and Assistance for Category A representations to the Cat A panel and also representations to the Local Advisory Panel (LAP)  ( back in scope from February 2018)

We can also submit written representations to PPCS (Public Protection Casework Section) for consideration of LISP 4 regarding an IPP prisoner being removed from open conditions  ( back in scope following consultations with representative bodies from June 2018)

Adjudications in front of an outside Judge where extra days can be awarded

Advice and Assistance for Governor adjudications where the Governor has granted permission for representation under the Tarrant criteria. 

Sentence Calculation – but only 6 months post sentence. 

The Lord Chancellor has recognised that exceptional case funding (ECF) may be available for the following categories of case (subject to satisfaction of the relevant statutory criteria):
• Mother and baby units;
• Licence conditions/resettlement; and
• Segregation.
A decision on whether funding should be made available in any individual case falls to the Director of Legal Aid Casework, acting independently, in applying the statutory guidelines in respect of ECF.

There is no legal aid for :

Sentence planning

Recategorisation for any category other than A as specified above

Any treatment issues

Other issues such as slipping and falling over in jail,  bad treatment by guards,  being assaulted or injured have never been within the scope of prison law.

Legal aid was removed in 2013 for sentence planning, Cat A reviews and Pre-Tariff expiry reviews.   This decision was Judicially reviewed by the Howard League for Penal reform and happily the two latter items were back in scope this February.  In June 2018 revisions were made and the issues highlighted above came back in scope.

I receive multiple letters every month from prisoners asking me to help them with various ‘treatment’ issues such as their legal mail being opened,  lack of heating in their cells, not being able to get their medication, not being able to access mental health services, property issues,  the list is endless but again I cannot help. In those instances I refer them directly to the Prisons and Probation ombudsman the address  is PO Box 70769, London, SE1 4XY.  It has to be the prisoner who makes the enquiry not a family member or legal representative and the prisoner is ordinarily expected to have tried to resolve the issue with the jail via the complaints system.

Some Solicitors will take on work such as drafting representations for open conditions on a fixed fee basis, if a family member is prepared to pay and I did initially take on work on a private basis, however I have personally found it to be not cost effective and I tend to decline the work these days as I am booked up with legal aid work.

The decision whether or not to do pro bono work for non funded prison law is a difficult topic.  I have formed the view that it really is up to the individual solicitor.  My own personal view and the attitude I adopt is that if everyone agreed to work for free the Government will continue to treat Legal Aid lawyers badly and they will never pay us properly for the valuable work we do.  Why would they have to pay us for work we will do for nothing?  It is only the direct result of action groups who Judicially Reviewed the decision to remove legal aid in the first place why legal aid came back into scope in February for the items listed above.  Of course there will always be the exception.  If I have a client who is mentally ill or cannot read or write, I do help but it is the exception rather than the rule.  One of the problems is what starts as a few letters can snowball into a lot of work and then the client refers his friends to you who also expects that you will work for free so my own experience has taught me it is better to decide what your view point is regarding pro bono work and stick to it.

There is a very strange anomaly with Governors adjudications.  They are not in scope for legal aid unless the Tarrant criteria applies (which is very rare) yet the inmate is ‘entitled’ to legal advice.   So the inmate asks for legal advice, the Governor puts it off for 7 days and then there is no legal aid for us to help them.  Some solicitors give that advice on a private paying basis.

The effects of removing legal aid and assistance for prisoners resulted in frustration and a feeling of being abandoned.  The results of which we see now in the increase in violence and drug taking. Our prisons have become lawless institutions where both staff and fellow prisoners are frightened to come out of their offices and cells.  Let’s hope the Government actually listens to those who work in this difficult environment this time and realises this is an area they need to put money in and  not take it out.

 

 

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