Category Archives: Legal cases brought by prisoners
Government plans to overhaul legal aid threaten to destroy the “world-renowned” British justice system, barristers have told ministers – and prison experts have said the measures threaten such a level of national unrest inside our jails that they could eventually cost far more than any potential savings would ever hope to save.
The Bar Council, which represents barristers in England and Wales, has published its response to the Ministry of Justice consultation on legal aid reform, which includes paving the way for lawyers to compete for contracts.
The 150-page response said price competitive tendering (PCT) promotes the “lowest possible quality of service” and will result in further changes to civil legal aid, hitting society’s most vulnerable people.
Other changes will see criminal defendants living in households with a disposable income of £37,500 or more stopped from automatically accessing legal aid, while prisoners’ rights to the support will also would be curbed.
Maura McGowan QC, chairman of the Bar Council, said: “There is no avoiding the simple fact that these proposals would move us from having a justice system which is admired all over the world, to a system where price trumps all.
“PCT may look as though it achieves short-term savings, but it is a blunt instrument that will leave deep scars on our justice system for far longer. Further cuts to the scope of civil legal aid will limit access to justice for some of the most vulnerable. That is a legacy of which no Government should be proud.”
She added: “The proposals simply do not have a sufficient evidence base on which to attract support. We believe that if these proposals are implemented as they stand, the system will go very badly wrong. Once implemented, these measures cannot be easily reversed.”
Ms McGowan QC said Justice Secretary Chris Grayling should achieve any required reforms “without destroying a world-renowned institution”.
The Bar Council response said that the proposals would destroy the livelihoods of many smaller solicitors’ firms and the criminal defence Bar.
Criminal legal aid costs taxpayers more than £1 billion every year and the proposals should cut the bill by £220 million.
In April, reforms to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (Laspo) came into effect, removing large areas of law from the scope of civil legal aid.
Some law firms estimated the reforms will reduce the number of people who qualify for legal aid by 75%, meaning around 200,000 fewer cases, while barristers warned the cuts are the biggest to civil legal aid since the system was introduced in 1949.
In its response to the consultation, the Bar Standards Board (BSB), the body responsible for regulating barristers, said plans to pay legal aid lawyers the same amount for a “guilty” or “not guilty” plea could lead to defendants being pressurised into pleading guilty.
It said cases where the defendant enters an initial guilty plea are typically shorter and so cheaper than trials to assess guilt.
Setting the same fee for cases where a defendant pleads guilty and for longer trials may create an incentive for lawyers to encourage clients to plead guilty.
Bar Standards Board chair Baroness Ruth Deech said: “These reforms may endanger the ability of our legal system to guarantee everyone a fair trial.
“While we accept that the current austerity measures are a consequence of the financial climate, protecting the public, and ensuring criminal cases are dealt with fairly and justly, remain of the utmost importance.”
Mr Grayling said: “We have one of the best legal professions in the world.
“But at a time of major financial challenges, the legal sector cannot be excluded from the Government’s commitment to getting better value for taxpayers’ money. We believe costs paid to lawyers through legal aid should reflect this.
“Professional, qualified lawyers will be available, just as they are now, and contracts will only be awarded to lawyers who meet quality standards set by the profession.
“Wealthy defendants who can afford to pay for their own legal bills should do so. Our proposal is to introduce a threshold on Crown Court legal aid so that people earning around £100,000 a year are no longer automatically granted legal aid.
“We have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world, with about £1 billion a year spent just on criminal legal aid.
“These changes are about getting the best value for the taxpayer and will not in any way affect someone’s right to a fair trial.”
The disposable income cap of £37,500 per household would impact defendants with six-figure salaries, an MoJ spokesman added.
But Mark Leech, editor of Converse the national newspaper for prisoners in England and Wales said those figures were disputed by many prison law experts, and the threatened cuts in legal aid could end up ‘costing far more than the measures would ever save’.
Mr Leech said: “Look, its not rocket science, but history shows there comes a policy tipping point where one cut too much results in a backlash inside our overcrowded powder-keg prisons, which are things that we desperately need to avoid – these things can rapidly spread nationally, caused by cuts that while understandable politically are nontheless, in practice, just one cut too many.”
Mr Leech explaned: “In 1990 the riot at Strangeways prison in Manchester spread within days to 13 other prisons, it cost the taxpayer over ninety million pounds, people died, no one wants to be seen talking these things up, and certaintly not me – but we can’t ignore history nor the facts or the consequences that we know from history are seriously likely to occur.
“The lesson now, before its too late is this: Stop, don’t pick on vulnerable prisoners any more, they’re a soft political target but history also shows that pushed too far they are a formidable resistable force which when unleashed has an incredible national impetus – try focusing on the bankers (or ‘Banksters’ as they’ve become known) instead – or at least as a minimum let’s have a rational national debate about its policy.
“It’s not too late – but we really do need to be now all on the same side.”
To: Nigel Newcomen – Prisons and Probation Ombudsman for England and Wales
From: Mark Leech, Editor: The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales
Ref: Proposals to reduce prison law legal aid
Date: 16th April 2013
You will be aware that the Justice Secretary has announced proposals for a savage reduction in prison law legal aid with, as a result, more prisoners petitioning your Office for help.
If these cuts go through it will result in huge unfairness to prisoners – and it risks unrest in prisons too.
Lord Bridge of Harwich notably once remarked ” Nothing, I believe, is so likely to generate unrest among ordinary prisoners as a sense that they have been treated unfairly and have no effective means of redress – if a prisoner has a genuine grievance…his right to petition a faceless authority in Whitehall for a remedy will not be of much comfort to him.”
Those in custody should have free access to the courts to challenge their treatment and detention, and these proposals strike right at the heart of that principle.
There is also something distinctly unfair about a Government (which is normally the defendant in prisoner legal challenges) exercising Parliamentary powers to prevent those challenges being brought rather than having to defend their actions in open court – let us not forget in judicial review a High Court Judge has to agree that there is a case before the case can even be listed.
The Government’s proposals envisage a large increase in the use of the internal complaints system which ultimately ends with you – but your Office in unable to cope with the levels of complaints it currently receives, and surely it is therefore a nonsense to expect you to deal with even more?
There is also the point that few prisoners have any real faith in you or your alleged independence – I do not impute bad faith but you must realise that appointing you as Prisons Ombudsman when you had worked for 20 years in the very Prison Service (indeed rising to an Assistant Director within it) that you are now charged with independently investigating, was a disastrous decision for the perception of independence in your Office and small wonder too why faith in it has simply failed to develop.
Imagine the uproar if the Head of the Independent Police Complaints Commission was a former Assistant Chief Constable.
You know all of this already of course, because you and I have had these discussions many times.
Each time however you insist you are independent – well here is your chance to prove it.
Click the link below to sign our e-petition launched today calling on the Government to scrap its plans to reduce prison law legal aid – will you do it?
-- Mark Leech FRSA. M.InstPL Director Prisons Org UK Ltd PO Box 757 Stockport SK2 9AS Tel: 08450 660011 Fax: 08450 660022
Prisoners are set to be prevented from claiming legal aid to pursue complaints against the prison system, the government has announced – amid claims by jail experts that it could lead to riots inside prisons.
Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said taxpayers’ money was being used for “unnecessary legal cases” that could be dealt with by the prison service.
The Ministry of Justice will consult on the proposals which it said would mean 11,000 fewer cases and save £4m a year.
Prison campaigners said the plans were “profoundly unfair” and “negative”.
Mr Grayling said: “I have been appalled that taxpayers pay millions of pounds every year supplying lawyers for prisoners to bring unnecessary legal cases.
“The vast majority of these types of complaint can and should be dealt with by the prison service’s complaints system.
“After years spiralling out of control, the amount spent on legal aid for prisoners is being tackled.
“Legal aid must be preserved for those most in need and where a lawyer’s services are genuinely needed.”
The move would cover issues such as the category of prison or which section of a prison an inmate was being held in, and levels of visits and correspondence.
Mark Leech editor of Converse the national newspaper for prisoners said it was a blind alley for the prison service that “could end up costing a hundred times what it might save”
Mr Leech said: “The prison complaints system is a sham, it is overseen by a Prisons Ombudsman who was himself a 20-year employee and Assistant Director of the very prison service he is charged with independently investigating and who has no confidence of the prisoners who complain to him.
“I fully understand the need to save money, unwinnable legal cases waste resources and help no-one, but publicly funding people in custody to challenge their treatment in the courts is the price we all pay for a democracy and must continue to do so.
“Chris Grayling should remember the reason we even have a prison complaints system, shambolic as it is, is as a result of the Strangeways Riots 23 years ago this month which caused over £90m in damage – £400m in today’s figures.
“Removing the courts from the complaints process inside our prisons risks riots, destruction and death, it could end up costing a hundred times what it might save – Lord Bridge in one famous prison legal case said he could ‘think of no greater reason for unrest inside our prisons than a feeling that prisoners have been treated unfairly and have no effective means of redress’ and the Government needs to remember those words.”
Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said it was important that prisoners had access to the courts.
He said: “The government’s proposals to further curtail legal aid for prisoners are profoundly unfair and will have negative consequences for society as a whole.
“An internal complaints system is no replacement for external scrutiny by the courts, while the already stretched prison ombudsman does not have the power to provide meaningful redress.
“Without prisoners being able to access legal aid, which has already been restricted to prevent frivolous claims, we may see a collapse in justice in the very place where it should be paramount – within prison walls.”
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “While no-one would support vexatious use of the law, when it comes to people deprived of their liberty and held by the State you do need safeguards to ensure that our prison system is fair, decent and open to legitimate challenge.”
The announcement comes after changes to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act came into effect on Monday in England and Wales.
This saw public funding removed from entire areas of civil law, including some family cases, as ministers bid to reduce the £2.2bn legal aid bill by £350m.
There are also government proposals to reduce legal aid costs in criminal cases.
A severely disabled prisoner who requires round-the-clock treatment does not have to go back to jail, the Court of Appeal ruled today.
Daniel Roque Hall, 30, is serving a three-year sentence after admitting smuggling 2.8kg of cocaine in his wheelchair back from a holiday in Peru.
He suffers from the rare degenerative condition Friedreich’s ataxia and is not expected to live into his 40s. He has spent most of his sentence in hospital.
Allowing his appeal against sentence, Lord Justice Hughes, Mr Justice Wyn Williams and Mr Justice Hickinbottom substituted the lesser term of 18 months, which means he can return to his north-west London home this week.
Lord Justice Hughes said there was no lack of punishment in what he had undergone since being sentenced last summer, and his case was “an appropriate case for an exceptional application of mercy”.
The court was told of his fear of dying if he is sent back to Wormwood Scrubs in west London because the prison cannot meet his complex care needs.
Hall was taken to University College Hospital last August after his health deteriorated in the jail and since then has been kept in hospital under prison guard.
Although they are allowing Hall to return home, the judges made an order under the Serious Crime Act 2007 requiring him to surrender to the police his two passports – one British and one Nicaraguan – and not to travel abroad for three years from the date of his original conviction.
Lord Justice Hughes said the travel ban was necessary to counter any risk of him becoming involved in further offending, adding: “It is necessary because of the risk which affects him as well as other people”.
Last month Hall won a High Court injunction preventing the prison service from returning him to jail pending today’s ruling.
Protesters had demonstrated outside Wormwood Scrubs after he was told he would be sent back.
Hall pleaded guilty to smuggling 2.8kg of cocaine out of Peru at Isleworth Crown Court in February last year and was sentenced in July. The court heard he had could not have acted alone and may have been “groomed” online.
Friedreich’s ataxia affects body co-ordination and causes diabetes and a heart defect which requires constant monitoring.
Hall was rushed to hospital last August and placed on a life support machine when his condition worsened.
Hall’s family said the two constant carers he needed were not supplied while he was inprison, and he had been denied vital medication and stretching exercises.
This had resulted in severe spasms, which affected his heart.
Hall’s mother Anne, who joined supporters who clapped as the appeal judges announced their decision, said she was “absolutely delighted” with the court’s decision to release her son.
She said: “The court has made a right and just decision for which I am grateful.
“It is important for people with disabilities that their needs are properly understood and prisons can cater for them in the way they would be treated in the community.
Mrs Hall said it was a pity the prison authorities did not draw on the “deep knowledge” of the organisation Ataxia UK.
She added: “Ataxia UK said in July that sending Daniel to Wormwood Scrubs for three years was a death sentence, and the seven weeks he spent there did almost cost him his life.”
Lord Justice Hughes said in his written judgment it was “a very unusual case” in which the trial judge had to find the right sentence for a man suffering from “a grave combination of rare, long-term medical conditions” which were “quite dreadful” and interfered with virtually all his bodily functions.
Hall had become confined to a wheelchair 15 years ago and required 24-hour monitoring and a very high level of constant assistance.
His family had connections in South America, and his father was Nicaraguan. He had travelled to Peru with his carer and committed a serious offence of importing into the UK a large quantity of cocaine with a high level of purity, worth about £370,000.
“The defendant was not exploited by someone else, nor does he suggest that he was blackmailed or put under severe pressure,” said the judge.
“Severely disabled as he himself is, the quantity of the drug imported was capable of ruining the lives of many other people, either directly from taking it or via the harm that those who took it might do to others.”
The court could not be sure whether his offending was prompted by resentment against society generally “attributable to the appalling handicaps life had visited upon him”.
It was his first offence and he had demonstrated genuine remorse and been at pains to exonerate his carer.
But the condition of gravely ill or severely disabled people who committed serious offences “cannot be a passport to absence of punishment”, said the judge.
If Hall offended again punishment would inevitably be the outcome, with some loss of quality of care.
The judge added: “There is no lack of punishment in what he has undergone since being sentenced in the summer of last year.
“He is now said by the hospital to be significantly more frail than at the time of sentence.”
The events of last August, when Hall had to be taken from prison to hospital, did not demonstrate any breach of human rights by the prison authorities.
But they did illustrate the “inherently unstable combination of conditions from which he suffers and the real potential for unexpected deterioration over a short period.”
If the trial judge had known, “we think he would have felt able to make a significantly greater reduction in his sentence”.
Later a Prison Service spokeswoman said: “We can confirm that the court did not uphold Daniel Roque-Hall’s human rights allegations in respect to his treatment at HMP Wormwood Scrubs and concluded that the prison had not acted unlawfully.
“The Prison Service holds in custody those sentenced by the Courts and it is committed to treating all prisoners humanely and decently.”
Welcoming the court judgment, Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “Prison is a double punishment for a severely disabled person.”
Ataxia UK said it was “delighted” with the court ruling and Hall was expected to return home today.
Chief executive Sue Millman said: “Daniel was given a three-year custodial term, not a death sentence.
“Therefore we are extremely glad that there was a legal case for the reduction in Daniel’s jail term, as this means he is no longer under threat of further compromise to his health and well-being.”
A fun-fair worker who raped a young teenager after forcing her to drink alcohol won damages today after a European court ruled his human rights had been breached.
Samuel Betteridge, 58, from Mablethorpe, was jailed after he pleaded guilty to two counts of rape and one of attempted rape at Lincoln Crown Court in 2005.
A 13-month delay between the end of Betteridge’s minimum term and his first parole hearing was a breach of his right to a speedy hearing, the European Court of Human Rights found.
The Strasbourg court ordered the British Government to pay Betteridge 750 euros (£640) in damages and 2,000 euros (£1,710) for his lawyers’ costs.
A High Court judge has used human rights laws to give anonymity to a notorious killer who is seeking to be moved to an open prison.
The man is currently challenging a Parole Board decision refusing him a transfer to open conditions.
A judge ruled today that allowing the convicted man, who has spent decades in prison, to be publicly named would potentially endanger his life.
The judge continued previous orders that have hidden the man’s identity over several years.
Even the details of the man’s offending – referred to by his own counsel as “horrific and horrendous” – cannot be revealed to the public by order of the court.
Mr Justice Simon, sitting in London, rejected submissions from the Press Association that granting the man anonymity was setting a precedent for other high-profile prisoners to seek anonymity.
There were indications in court that the lifer might be given a new identity, if eventually released into the community on parole.
The no-names application was made by the man’s lawyers – with the support of the Justice Secretary.
Quincy Whitaker, making the application, told the judge there was “a serious likelihood of a serious attack” on the man whilst in prison if his identity was revealed in the press and media.
She argued this would infringe his rights under the 1998 Human Rights Act not to have his life endangered and not to be subject to inhuman or degrading treatment.
The judge said the Press Association had “raised some important points” but he was satisfied he should grant the anonymity order – “at least for the moment”.
He said the press and media had 24 hours to contact Scott-Moncrieff & Associates, the London-based solicitors instructing Ms Whitaker, and notice of any application to challenge the order or vary it.
The judge reserved judgment on the killer’s challenge to the Parole Board decision.
A lawyer for the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing asked a US federal appeals court to let him investigate why the government insists his imprisoned client is still a danger to America.
Attorney Bernard Kleinman wants the Second US Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan to let him gather facts from prosecutors about why Ramzi Yousef remains held under the strictest security measures 15 years after they were first imposed.
The three-judge panel did not immediately rule.
“I think it’s just plain unfair,” Mr Kleinman said outside court. “Most of the terrorists he knew are either dead or in jail.”
Assistant US attorney Nicholas Lewin argued for the government that the case belongs in Colorado rather than Manhattan because Yousef is challenging his prison conditions.
Yousef, 44, is in solitary confinement at the so-called Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado.
Yousef was sentenced to life in prison after he was convicted in the February 1993 attack that killed six people and injured hundreds of others and in a plot to bomb 12 American airliners over the Far East.
He fled to the Middle East the night of the bombing and was captured two years later in Pakistan, where he was turned over to the FBI.
He now lives in a 7ft by 11ft cell with a radio, a television, a desk, a toilet and a shower, Mr Kleinman said.
Since 1997, he has been subjected to special administrative measures reserved for prisoners who are believed to be a continuing threat to the country.
Mr Kleinman said he is challenging the grounds under which the government continues to impose the severe restrictions on Yousef.
The restrictions prevent Yousef from communicating with other prisoners and only allow him to meet with his lawyer, Mr Kleinman said.
For those visits, the last of which occurred in October 2010, Yousef is shackled and forced to communicate through Plexiglass.
Yousef is a nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who has conceded in a written statement that he directed the September 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Mr Kleinman said Yousef’s prison conditions were tightened even more after the September 11 attacks so that he was no longer housed near criminals including Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and Oklahoma City bombing conspirators Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh.
McVeigh was executed while Nichols is serving life in prison.
At his 1998 sentencing, Yousef defiantly proclaimed: “Yes, I am a terrorist and am proud of it.”
Mr Kleinman said he knows his client is “not a sympathetic character” and that there are “legitimate hard feelings against him”.
But he added that he hopes to eventually get the severe prison conditions loosened so that Yousef can have fewer restrictions on his communications with family, including his wife and two daughters.
“The human interaction is really a big issue for him,” Mr Kleinman said. “He recognises he’ll be in jail the rest of his life.”
Prisoners who took jobs outside jail have lost their High Court claim that a levy on their wages which goes to victim support is too high.
A judge in London rejected “on all grounds” their challenge to the legality of the way Justice Secretary Ken Clarke is operating rules governing deductions from pay packets.
The test case action affects inmates working in the community as they prepare for their release and to “go straight”.
Welcoming the judgment, the “delighted” Justice Secretary said: “For too long offenders have not done enough to shoulder the financial burden of their crimes, leaving the taxpayer to foot the bill for the damage they have caused.”
Mr Clarke added: “The Prisoners’ Earnings Act is the start of Government getting the balance right – forcing prisoners to take responsibility for their crimes and helping victims to recover through the funding of these vital support services.
“In the first six months, nearly £400,000 has been raised through the Prisoners’ Earnings Act for Victim Support.
“I’m delighted that this ruling means that offenders will continue to contribute to make amends for their crimes.”
Under the Prisoners’ Earnings Act 1996, inmates engaged in “enhanced wages work” outside prison have 40% of pay which is in excess of £20 paid to victim support.
Lawyers representing two inmates, S and KF, who cannot be named for legal reasons, argued the payments were “disproportionate” and said there was “widespread concern” about the levy.
The court heard claims that prisoners with high travel expenses to reach work were being left with no wages.
There were also complaints that they were being left with insufficient funds to pay towards costs of resettlement such as helping out with family expenses, or saving for a rent deposit and furniture for when they were released.
Mr Justice Sales was told at a two-day hearing in May the pressure group “Unlock” (the National Association of Reformed Offenders) was complaining that the levy undermined rehabilitation and acted as “a disincentive to work”.
Kate Markus, appearing for S, a 40-year-old serving an indeterminate sentence in an openprison, argued Mr Clarke could, and should, have allocated a portion of the 40% levy to help the inmates rebuild their lives as well as help victims.
S has had a full-time job with a private employer doing manual work outside the prisonsince June last year.
Ms Markus asked the High Court to declare that Prison Service instructions issued by Mr Clarke – the first took effect in August last year – giving effect to the levy were “incompatible” with the European Convention on Human Rights.
She said Mr Clarke had failed to strike a balance between the interests of victims of crime and inmates.
The second claimant, KF, described by the judge as having an unspecified number of children, attends college while serving a four-year sentence at an open prison and is due for release next month.
Her QC, Hugh Southey, said she had decided not to seek work outside prison because of the impact of the levy on her potential earnings.
He argued the levy unlawfully imposed a heavier penalty than the one applicable at the time KF committed her offence and violated her rights under human rights legislation.
He also argued it breached the Equality Act as the levy was having a disproportionate impact on women.
After examining each of the arguments in turn, the judge announced he was dismissing the challenges to the relevant prison instructions on all grounds.
The question of an appeal to the Court of Appeal will be considered at a hearing later this month.
The case mostly affects the inmates of open prisons but also some Category C prisoners allowed to work in the community on day release under contracts of employment.
Rates of pay from outside employers are higher than those for work performed in prison.