Helping prisoners to access and use the law could go a significant way to helping prisoners turn their lives around when they are released, the UK's oldest penal reform charity has suggested.

Less than a fornight after being appointed justice secretary, David Lidington pledged in an open letter that work to 'stop the vicious and costly cycle' of reoffending would be his priority.

Solicitor Laura Janes, legal director at the Howard League for Penal Reform, today said empowering prisoners to access and use the law will help them to lead positive lives.

Writing a chapter for political thinktank the Fabian Society's latest publication, Fair and Free: Labour, liberty and human rights, Janes said prisons are 'full of those who are already outside the reach of the law by virtue of their long histories of unmet legal need. Those imprisoned in their communities by poverty and other social pressures are also removed from the benefits of the law, whether by ignorance of it, lack of confidence or means to use it'.

Early legal assistance could have resolved several issues faced by the charity's clients before they were imprisoned, Janes notes. 'Yet even where legal aid exists, so many people do not know that their problem has a legal solution, or how to access it,' she said.

Highlighting the need for public legal education 'on a grand scale', Janes said a cultural change is also required 'to support the disenfranchised and the helpless to become active legal users'. She added; 'Something more than chucking money at the problem is required - it is a wholesale change in the way we think about law and rights.'

Janes' comments echo recommendations made in a report published by the Bach Commission on access to justice, chaired by Labour peer Lord Bach (Willy Bach), a former justice minister. The commission recommends that the government restore legal aid for early legal help for prisoners in certain cases, better public legal education in schools and a central portal for online information and advice.