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.