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Ministers to abolish legal aid for prisoner complaints

By Vivienne Russell | 4 April 2013

Prisoners will no longer be given legal aid to pursue complaints about the prison system, ministers are set to propose.

This would save about £4m a year and reduce the number of legally aided cases brought by prisoners by 11,000 a year, the Ministry of Justice said.

Announcing the plans today, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said he was ‘appalled’ that millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money was being used by prisoners to bring ‘unnecessary legal cases’.

He said: ‘The vast majority of these types of complaint can and should be dealt with by the prison service’s complaints system. After years of 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.’

Under the current system, prisoners can access legal aid to fund appeals against, for example, the category of prison they have been placed in or a decision to move them to a different section of a prison. Other cases have involved arrangements concerning their visitors or correspondence.

The MoJ said these cases could be adequately dealt with by the prison service’s internal complaints system and passed to the Independent Prisons and Probation Ombudsman for consideration once the complaints system had been exhausted.

Appeals against sentences and parole hearings would remain eligible for legal aid.

Prison reform campaigners criticised the move. 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.’

Andrew Neilson of the Howard League for Penal Reform said an internal complaints system was ‘no replacement’ for external scrutiny by the courts.

The government’s proposals will be included in a consultation on wider changes to legal aid, which the MoJ said would be published ‘shortly’.

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