Law students are giving new meaning to the phrase ‘letter of the law’ with their efforts to address the decline in prison law advice caused by firms dropping out of the sector as a result of the government’s legal aid reforms.

Volunteers from the University of Sussex have opened a ‘letters clinic’ to help prisoners with questions regarding their rights.

The final-year law students will be working with national charity Prisoners’ Advice Service (PAS) to provide free support and advice on prison discipline, licence conditions, visiting rights, categorisation of prisoners, and applications for parole.

They will help lecturer and criminal law expert Dr Lucy Welsh, who is leading the scheme, to research enquiries to the clinic and help draft appropriate responses in a short timeframe.

The university announced that the scheme was set up to ’fill the gap left’ after many law firms dropped the provision of prison legal advice following legal aid cutbacks.

Olivia Lewis

Olivia Lewis

University of Sussex

In 2010, the government made changes to legal aid for prison law, which included a requirement for providers to apply to the Legal Aid Agency for prior approval before starting work on cases concerning prisoners’ treatment. The ministry, in its latest legal aid statistics bulletin, said prison law workload began to decline following the changes.

In December 2013, changes were made to the scope of legal aid available for prison law under the government’s Legal Aid Transformation programme. The ministry acknowledged that these changes ‘appear to have accelerated the existing downward trend in prison law workload over the following year, with freestanding advice and assistance accounting for most of the decline’.

Latest figures show that the number of claims submitted in relation to freestanding advice and assistance fell from around 6,500 in the last three months of 2013, to less than 2,000 in the same period last year.

Welsh said the letters clinic is an opportunity to help provide legal advice and assistance to people ’unable to afford the services of a solicitor in an area which needs intervention’.

She said PAS receives 4,000 letters a year and, as a small charity, does not have the resources to respond to every letter without the assistance of outreach clinics.

Law student Olivia Lewis (pictured) said: ’As someone who wishes to practise criminal law, it is an excellent opportunity to gain real-life experience, as well as become aware of areas of law that I wouldn’t have learnt in my degree.’