Two charities will take their case over cuts in legal aid for prison law to the Court of Appeal after the High Court rejected their legal challenge today.
The Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prisoners’ Advice Service (PAS) went to court earlier this month to seek judicial reviews against restrictions to legal aid imposed by the government last December.
They argued that the cuts were introduced for ideological reasons and undermined the rule of law, created an inherently unfair system, will leave vulnerable people unrepresented and cost more than they save.
In a 30-page judgment, Mr Justice Cranston, sitting with Lady Justice Rafferty, said the cuts may well be unfair and may not save money, but concluded these were political, not legal, issues.
The lord chancellor Chris Grayling (pictured), represented by James Eadie QC, had argued that prisoners could use the prisoner complaints system and, ultimately, judicial review to resolve issues.
The court accepted the lord chancellor’s argument, although it said those mechanisms, ‘have their drawbacks and gaps’ and ‘none may match the assistance which has been provided by lawyers’ supported by legal aid.
In dismissing the charities’ application, the court said it can ‘well understand the concerns’ raised by the changes, but said: ‘We simply cannot see, at least at this point in time, how these concerns can arguably constitute unlawful action by the lord chancellor.'
Raising the possibility of successful future challenges, the court said: ‘For the time being the forum for advancing these concerns remains the political [one].’
Commenting on the judgment, the Howard League’s chief executive Frances Crook said: ‘We will take this to the Court of Appeal as the High Court made fundamental errors in its understanding of some of the key points.
Crook said the court failed to deal properly with the House of Commons Justice Committee’s concerns that the complaints system cannot be effective in certain cases and ‘completely failed’ to address how unfairness would not arise in particular situations where prisoners are unrepresented.
Deborah Russo, joint managing solicitor at the Prisoners’ Advice Service, said the charity is ‘deeply disappointed’ with the judgment that ‘fails to respond to the increased unfairness prisoners now face’ as a result of the cuts.
Russo said: ‘The court is right to say that this is a political issue; however that does not mean that it is one in which the law cannot intervene if prisoners’ fundamental rights of access to legal remedies are being breached.’
Read the full judgment .