CUTS to legal aid for prisoners were ruled “inherently unfair” in a landmark court victory yesterday.
Two charities, the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prisoners’ Advice Service (PAS), had challenged the removal of legal aid for prisoners in criminal cases.
At the Court of Appeal, three judges concluded that alternative “safeguards” to legal aid for prisoners were insufficient.
They said that the high threshold required for a finding of inherent or systemic unfairness had been satisfied in three of five categories.
These were when the Parole Board advises the Justice Secretary on whether a prisoner is suitable for a move to open conditions, reviews of Category A prisoners and decisions on transfers to close supervision centres.
The judges said that their focus was on how vulnerable prisoners with disabilities and mental illnesses were affected.
They added: “Almost no changes have been introduced to replace the gap left by the removal of legal aid.
“The evidence about prison staffing levels, the current state of prisons and the workload of the Parole Board suggests that the system is under considerable pressure … and has not got the capacity to fill the gap.”
The ruling will ease pressures on the prison system, which has been at “breaking point” for some time, the Howard League said in a statement.
Since the cuts came into force in December 2013, violence and self-injury in prisons has hit “record levels,” the charity said, with around 300 people committing suicide.
And calls to the two charities’ advice lines have increased by almost half.
Labour’s shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon said: “Legal aid cuts across the board and employment tribunal fees have blocked access to justice for ordinary people the length and breadth of the country.”