Chris Grayling’s comments about the restriction of legal aid for prisoner complaints are either another example of political posturing from the justice secretary or, more worryingly, show an alarming ignorance of how such cases have been funded for over three years.
Grayling says that the cuts will lead to savings of £4m a year and reduce the number of cases brought against prisons and staff by 11,000. No mention is made of the fact that the vast majority of prisoner complaints are already dealt with by prisoners themselves with no assistance from a lawyer, not least because legal aid was effectively removed from such cases by the last Labour government in 2009. Although the Legal Services Commission can grant funding for ‘treatment’ cases, it has only done so in about 20 cases during the last three years, and even then these cases are subject to standard fees, currently a little over £200 per case. It is therefore difficult to see how these proposals are going to dramatically improve the UK economy or lead to a reduction in litigation, given the tiny numbers of such cases the government actually funds.
The Prisoners’ Advice Service is a legal charity which provides free legal advice to prisoners. Most complaints we receive from prisoners about their treatment are far from frivolous and will sometimes require outside assistance. This is either because the complaint raises issues of wider public importance or involves a breach of individual human dignity. Recent examples include a prisoner forced to use a cell toilet in full view of other inmates and staff, simply because it would cost too much money to alter the Victorian cells where he was held to include privacy screens. Other examples are the now routine handcuffing of almost all prisoners escorted by prison staff to outside hospital visits, regardless of age, frailty, or medical incapacity.
Grayling is apparently appalled at the ‘unnecessary legal cases’ being brought, but this does not reflect the landscape within which legal aid has had to operate for over a decade. This has seen year-on-year cuts and whole areas of law taken out of the scope of public funding. Grayling is being entirely disingenuous in his claims. The Prisoners’ Advice Service would oppose any further cuts, and want the previous restrictions reversed so that prisoners with genuine and meritorious complaints can once again access appropriate legal advice. Matthew Evans, managing solicitor, Prisoners’ Advice Service, London EC1