Legal aid will be restored for three areas of prison law following a Court of Appeal judgment, the government has confirmed.
In Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prisoners’ Advice Service v the Lord Chancellor, the court ruled that the high threshold required for a finding of inherent or systemic unfairness was satisfied in the case of pre-tariff reviews by the parole board, category A reviews (those whose escape would be highly dangerous), and decisions regarding placement in close supervision centres. The threshold was not satisfied in relation to decisions about offending behaviour programmes and courses, and disciplinary proceedings where no additional days of imprisonment or detention can be awarded.
This week Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, a prison charity, posted a letter on Twitter from the Ministry of Justice confirming that an amending statutory instrument has been laid before parliament, extending criminal legal aid to the three areas where the court ruled against the government.
The Legal Aid Agency is consulting with the Law Society, the Bar Council and Legal Aid Practitioners' Group on changes to the 2017 crime contract.
According to the Howard League, almost 300 people have taken their own lives since eligibility for criminal legal aid in certain prison law matters was removed in December 2013. Calls to the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prisoners’ Advice Service have increased by nearly 50%.
The government considered appealing the court's findings but withdrew its application for permission to appeal to the Supreme Court.
Latest legal aid statistics show that prison law made up less than 2% of 'crime lower' workload between January and March 2017, but over 5% of expenditure. Prison law work began to decline following changes in July 2010, which included a requirment for providers to apply to the agency for prior approval before starting work on treatment cases. The downward trend accelerated after the government narrowed the scope of legal aid in December 2013.
This is not the first time the government has amended legal aid regulations following a court ruling. Campaign group Rights of Women, with the support of the Law Society, successfully fought rules introduced in April 2013 that required victims to provide a prescribed form of evidence to apply for family law legal aid. As a result, victims of domestic violence no longer have to endure harsh evidence tests to qualify for legal aid.