on the legal aid cuts

Q sought our assistance with sentence planning whilst detained in a Category B prison on the Isle of Wight. Having recently been granted Category D status – effectively a ticket to an open prison which facilitates the process of effective resettlement into the community – he was keen to arrange for this transfer as soon as possible.

Due to pressure on prison spaces, transfers are often delayed and prisoners can remain in the wrong category prison for much longer than they should – which can not only constitute arbitrary detention contrary to Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights, but vastly decreases prisoners’ ability to progress through the system, undergo effective rehabilitation and reduce the risk that they pose to the public. As Q is a foreign national and unable to read or write English, without advice on what the law said about his situation and assistance in the form of legal representation, his transfer could have been greatly delayed – potentially resulting in a costly Article 5 challenge.

Thanks to legal aid funding, however, we were able to prevent this by putting pressure on HMP Parkhurst to expedite his transfer and he was successfully moved to a Category D prison in Gloucestershire pursuant to our representations.

However, the story continued. Qi had the offer of a stable, full time job in London where his family is based, in addition to the fact that his father – for whom he as the only son had been sole carer throughout his life – was becoming increasingly ill and nearing the end of his life in London. The reasons for Q wishing to be in a London-based prison were two-fold: a) to be close enough to go and care for his father on his monthly home leave visits and b) to take up the permanent job offer as Head Chef a restaurant.

As the purpose of Category D is to prepare offenders for resettlement in the community by helping them into employment, it could not be stressed enough just how important it is that Q was able to take up this post. Unsurprisingly, for offenders serving custodial sentences, employment is not easy to come by. One such as this should have been given the most serious consideration and efforts made to ensure he was able to take it up – for his own good, for the good of his family, and the wider good of the community in which he would eventually resettle.

The prison consistently turned down his requests for transfer despite his strong reasoning, and the cause was all but given up on until we began making submissions to the prison. By researching and applying the relevant case law and statutory reasoning we were able to highlight to the prison the fact that, in the circumstances, they were obliged to explore the possibility of transfer.

After we issued a Letter Before Action alerting them to our intention to judicially review their failure to consider Q’s requests, we immediately heard back from them assuring us that arrangements were being made to transfer him, as yes, he did have a strong case for transfer.

This was an excellent result for Q, his family, and the wider community. And yet for Q, as someone with no knowledge of the law nor the ability to read and write (endemic within the prison population), would not have had the tools to secure such a result without advice and assistance. Should the proposed cuts go ahead, work of this nature would not fall within the scope of legal aid and the Q’s will have no choice but to fend for themselves.

This government consistently speaks of the need to promote ‘restorative justice’ and ensure that the prison system is actively geared towards rehabilitation. But these proposals will achieve the opposite. Prisoners who are not given basic advice and assistance on issues which materially affect their progression and their experiences whilst in custody will have profound implications on their long term rehabilitation and recovery.

If we want to keep re-offending down and prevent offenders from languishing in prison indefinitely at great expense to the public purse and their own rehabilitation, an acknowledgement of their dignity needs to be reflected in policy. Without this, deep budgetary cuts may help balance the books in the short term, but lead to disastrous consequences in the long run.

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