On Wednesday Chris Grayling – half Justice Secretary, half human baked bean – appeared before the Select Committee. During his performance, Grayling finally let us into one of the worst kept secrets since the revelation that big corporations don’t like paying tax – namely that his opposition to prisoners having legal aid has nothing to do with saving money but is ideological.
Ideology is usually defined as a system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy. It implies values and some coherence of thought (even if you violently disagree with it). This is not something easily ascribed to either the Ministry of Justice’s legal aid ‘reforms’ or to the Justice Secretary himself, save for his obvious positioning to be the next Tory leader and an ability to squeeze every penny from an MP’s expenses.
So what is Grayling’s desire to end legal advice for the rump of prison law matters likely to mean? Here are is just a snapshot of some of the cases that PAS has taken on in the last 12 months – at a cost to the Legal Services Commission (now LAA) of £220 each – and which would be excluded from public funding under the current proposals.
A 17 year old girl with ADHD, released from prison to a hostel where she shared a room with a much older woman with a history of alcohol issues. The room had no pillow and no lighting. Promises that on release she would be referred to employment access services evaporated. Despite a clear need for help, she was offered a Community Assessment Framework (which is a simple information sharing report) rather that the s17 Children Act 1989 assessment to which she was clearly entitled and which imposes on local authorities a general duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children ‘in need’ in their area. Complaints from her and her mother were ignored by Social Services and the local Youth Offending Team. Only after legal intervention was a S17 assessment conducted and an attendant assessment for accommodation under s20 obtained. She was finally provided with a care plan, placed in suitable and age appropriate accommodation and has not returned to custody since. Her mother told us that without support she felt recall would have been inevitable due the frustration and anger at her situation or her daughter would have tried to get breached in order to get out of the hostel.
A man who had not been able to see any of his three children for nearly three years because they lived in Kent and he was imprisoned in Durham. He was repeatedly refused a transfer to a prison closer to his children because of inaccurate information held by the prison service. This included having disciplinary charges against his name even though they had been dismissed, and that he had outstanding courses to do which was not true either. The prison service, as typical when challenged about the inaccuracies, ignored him or repeated mantra-like the previous decision. After the issuing of a judicial review, government lawyers agreed to settle. The prison were required to make a fresh decision that balanced his, and his children’s legal rights, with other considerations. He has since been recommended for transfer.
A 47 year old man, coming to the end of a four-year sentence, and with severe cognitive dysfunction, memory and language impairments, learning disabilities, and thoughts of paranoia and self-harm. The prison health care team were unable to secure any services for him on release from Social Services and contacted us because of their concerns as to how he was going to cope in the community. He was clearly unable to properly utilise the much vaunted complaints procedure because of his health issues. After the threat of legal action Social Services agreed to assess him and he was released with a proper care plan and level of support.
An expectant mother refused a place on a Mother & Baby Unit (MBU) because of un-substantiated allegations of previous behaviour but reported as fact by the Social Services department. Statements from family members and professionals previously involved in her care were obtained and which cast significant doubt on the allegations. After legal representations she was granted a place on the MBU and her baby was able to remain with her.
This is the potential fall out of Grayling’s ‘ideology’ – prisoners’ kept isolated not just from society through the continued lack of a vote – but also now isolated from any independent legal advice around conditions or treatment. Rights, and that is a word that some with a likeminded ‘ideology’ to Grayling spit out as if it were bile, will now largely be at the whim and mercy of the state and its delegated minions. Robust legal oversight will be lost. We will return to the situation of 20 years ago, with decisions being made behind closed doors, with no opportunity for prisoners to make representations, and where transparency was a word the prison service would only ever associated with the thickness of prison issued shirts.
Matt Evans is the Director of the AIRE Centre, a specialist charity whose mission is to promote awareness of European law rights and assist marginalised individuals and those in vulnerable circumstances to assert those rights. Previously he was the Managing Solicitor at the Prisoners Advice Service for 6 years and worked at a number of leading legal aid firms including TV Edwards, Hickman and Rose and Hodge Jones and Allen.