A prisoner who says she loves reading has won a High Court battle against Justice Secretary Chris Grayling’s controversial restrictions on jail inmates receiving books from friends and family.

A judge declared the restrictions introduced by a new prison rule in November 2013 “unlawful”.

Mr Justice Collins’s decision was a victory for Barbara Gordon-Jones, 56, a convicted arsonist with a borderline personality disorder who has a degree and a doctorate in English literature.

Gordon-Jones, of Tudeley, near Tunbrige Wells, Kent, who also suffers from depression and epilepsy, is serving an indefinite sentence for the protection of the public and is being held at Send prison near Woking, Surrey.

She was denied legal aid but was able to bring her court challenge because lawyers represented her for free.

She challenged the section of the new Prison Service Instruction (PSI) she said “imposes substantial restrictions on the ability of prisoners to receive, or have for their use, books”.

The judge said the PSI amended the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme (IEP).

He said: “I am satisfied that insofar as it includes books in IEP schemes, the PSI is unlawful.”

The ruling was welcomed by solicitors firm Lound Mulrenan Jefferies, who acted for Gordon-Jones pro bono along with barristers Jenni Richards QC, Victoria Butler-Cole and Annabel Lee.

The solicitors said in a statement: “Reading is a right and not a privilege, to be encouraged and not restricted.

“Indeed, Mr Justice Collins commented that, as far as books are concerned, ‘to refer to them as a privilege is strange’.

“The policy was unnecessary, irrational and counter-productive to rehabilitation. It is now rightly judged unlawful.”

The solicitors said the Justice Secretary and prison governor “sought to argue that there remained adequate access to books because prisoners borrow them from the prison library or purchase them with their own money, but this was rejected in today’s judgment”.

They said: “Prison libraries are often inadequately stocked and there are restrictions on access.

“Spending caps for prisoners usually mean that there is enough for bare essentials but not for books.”

Referring to the fact that Gordon-Jones was refused legal aid, the solicitors warned: “Under current proposals to restrict judicial review, it would be more difficult to bring this case and hold the Government to account.”

A Prison Service spokeswoman said: “This is a surprising judgment.

“There never was a specific ban on books and the restrictions on parcels have been in existence across most of the prison estate for many years and for very good reason.

“Prisoners have access to the same public library service as the rest of us, and can buy books through the prison shop.

“We are considering how best to fulfil the ruling of the court. However, we are clear that we will not do anything that would create a new conduit for smuggling drugs and extremist materials into our prisons.”

Mark Leech editor of Converse the national prisons newspaper said the Prison Service comment was inaccurate.

Mr Leech said: “In theory prisoners have the same rights of access to the library service as everyone else, but to claim that happens in practice stretches disingenuousness to the very edge of dishonesty.

“Prisoners are severely restricted in many jails in their access to prison libraries because of staff shortages and budget cuts – I welcome this judgement but suspect it will be subject to an appeal.”

Among those who opposed the ban were poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, and authors Kathy Lette, Philip Pullman and Tracy Chevalier, who expressed their delight with today’s ruling.

Author Pullman welcomed the ruling and told the BBC: “The ban on sending prisoners books seemed to me strikingly unjust and inhumane.

“Reading should be a right not a privilege to be withheld or allowed graciously by Her Majesty’s government, or anyone else.”

The ruling was welcomed by solicitors firm Lound Mulrenan Jefferies, who acted for Gordon-Jones pro bono along with barristers Jenni Richards QC, Victoria Butler-Cole and Annabel Lee.

The solicitors said in a statement: “Reading is a right and not a privilege, to be encouraged and not restricted.”

Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said: “The ban on sending books to prisoners was always an absurd policy.

“It had nothing to do with punishing and reforming prisoners but was an example of David Cameron’s Government’s sloppy policy-making.

“This is a victory for all those who campaigned against the ban and the Government should abandon the ludicrous policy with immediate effect.”

Mr Khan added: “What’s more, the absurdity of this policy has been exposed by judicial review, the very mechanism Chris Grayling is trying to neuter with his Criminal Justice and Courts Bill.

“Judicial review is a critical constitutional tool by which unlawful actions by governments are exposed.”

An Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “Recent reforms to legal aid and judicial review had absolutely no impact on whether legal aid was granted in this case, nor would the reforms impact on the availability of legal aid for this type of case in the future.”

Denis MacShane, the former Labour MP jailed for six months for expenses fraud, described today’s judgment as “a modest win for common sense”.

He said he had a suitcase full of books confiscated when he was sent to Belmarsh Prison last Christmas.

“Chris Grayling seems to think that being unpleasant to prisoners is good for society. On the contrary it makes rehabilitation much more difficult,” he said.

Sarah Turvey, principal lecturer in English, and co-founder of the University of Roehampton’s prison reading groups, said: “Any society which is committed to the rehabilitation of prisoners has to welcome the High Court’s verdict.

“Books are absolutely critical to widen people’s understanding, and there is perhaps no other group of people where this is more important than prisoners.”

Julian Huppert, Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: “We need education in our prisons.

“It’s vital from the moment people walk through the door they get the help and rehabilitation they need to ensure they don’t end up back behind bars.

“Simon Hughes in the Ministry of Justice has worked hard to make the case for ensuring all prisoners are able to receive the books they need, which Liberal Democrats believe is fundamental to creating a fairer society.”