Placing female prisoners away from family is ‘discrimination’, rules Supreme Court

A prison officer checking on a cell at HMP Wandsworth. Pic by Andy Aitchison from Proof magazine

The Supreme Court has ruled that the lack of approved premises – formerly known as probation or bail hostels – is a form of sex discrimination against women. Although living in approved premises can be a condition of release for prisoners, there is a huge disparity in availability of the 100 units across the country with 94 for men and just six for women. None of the women’s approved premises are in London or in Wales.

In a written submission to the Supreme Court, the Howard League for Penal Reform argued that women in prison were ‘particularly vulnerable’ and therefore it was ‘particularly important that they can maintain contact with family members and support services’.

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation found last year in its thematic inspection report that the lack of availability of women’s approved premises had ‘implications and challenges for effective resettlement’.

The report highlighted the discriminatory impact on mothers in particular, stating: ‘Women are more likely to be placed further away from their home areas than men, and those with caring responsibilities are likely to struggle to maintain links with their children and other family connections.’

In what has been called a ‘landmark case’ by the Howard League, the appeal was brought against the Justice Secretary by Ms Coll, a woman from London, who upon her release from prison had to relocate to Bedford and ultimately resettle in Milton Keynes, because there are no approved premises for women in the capital.

In her ruling, Lady Hale was explicit about how this current deficiency discriminated against women. ‘Being required to live in an approved premise a long way away from home is a detriment. A woman is much more likely to suffer this detriment than is a man, because of the geographical distribution of the small number of approved premises available for women. This is treating her less favourably than a man because of her sex.’

As the Ministry of Justice has never yet properly addressed or acknowledged the problem, whether by working to provide approved premises for women which place them as close to home as possible, or even assessing whether the current distribution of approved premises puts women at a disadvantage, the Supreme Court found that such discrimination could not be justified.

This ruling is hoped to be a step in the right direction for redressing the marginalisation of women within the criminal justice system, described by Baroness Corston as ‘a system largely designed by men for men’ in her ground-breaking report ten years ago on how to reform the system to better meet the needs of women.

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League, described how the lack of approved premises for women was just one illustration of discrimination against women throughout the justice system. ‘Women in conflict with the law have completely different needs from men,’ she said..

‘The combination of the small number of women and their strikingly different needs means they are routinely and severely disadvantaged throughout their experience in the criminal justice system, including their safe resettlement.’
Frances Crook

After the ruling, Crook said that the judgment sent ‘a strong message to the next government’. ‘It shows that if the criminal justice system continues to fail to assess, identify and meet the needs of women, our courts may rule this unlawful,’ she said.

Profile photo of Eleanor Sheerin About Eleanor Sheerin
Eleanor is an aspiring barrister and currently a legal intern with Global Rights Compliance, an organisation committed to enhancing compliance with international human rights standards

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