By Andrew Sperling, Chair of Association of Prison Lawyers
Legal aid for prisoners is under attack again and this time it may be terminal. The government’s proposals in a Consultation Paper called ‘Transforming Legal Aid’ are to remove legal aid for prisoners altogether except for parole, disciplinary hearings where additional days may be awarded or where the Governor allows representation and a limited range of sentence cases. They also aim to end prison law as a separate, specialist legal aid contract so that it can only be carried out by those firms with a criminal contract. The number of firms awarded criminal contracts will be reduced enormously so there will be very little – if any choice – of representative. The final nail in the coffin is a further reduction in fees meaning that it will be difficult for experienced lawyers to carry on with this work.
It is clear that these proposals will destroy prison law work and that the vast majority of prisoners will be left without good quality legal representation in the future. It will also mean that more and more unlawful decisions will go unchallenged. These plans are opposed by virtually everyone who understands how the criminal justice system works.
The Association of Prison Lawyers (APL) has many members –some very experienced and some new to this area – but all are united in trying to ensure that prisoners have access to high quality legal advice. Along with other organisations like the Prisoners Advice Service and the Howard League, who provide support and advice to prisoners, we are lobbying politicians, the Ministry of Justice, judges, the Parole Board, the Ombudsman, the Prisons Inspectorate, the Independent Monitoring Board and the media. We are also holding events for prison lawyers to talk about the proposals and what they might mean. We will do whatever we can to persuade anyone who may have influence to bear.
Ultimately, the real victims of this will be prisoners and their families. Your experiences and your voices must also be heard. You and your families can write to MPs and to your own lawyers. You can also respond directly to the consultation by writing to Annette Cowell, Ministry of Justice, 102 Petty France, London, SW1H 9AJ by 4th June 2013.
You can contact APL c/o Office 7, 19 Greenwood Place, London NW5 1LB.
The website address is www.associationofprisonlawyers.co.uk.