ABUSED prisoners will be failed by the justice system if the British Government proceeds with its legal aid reforms, the Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas has warned.
In an outspoken attack on controversial cost-cutting proposals, the ICPO, which works with around 1,000 Irish prisoners in Britain, said the reforms “will destroy prison law as we have known it” and could have “potentially disastrous consequences”.
The organisation has criticised the Ministry of Justice’s decision to include the abolition of legal aid for prisoners making complaints about their treatment in plans to cut £220million from its £1billion bill for contributing to the legal costs of offenders and defendants in criminal cases.
“We are extremely concerned about the effect these proposals will have on our clients,” said Joanna Joyce, co-ordinator of the ICPO.
“Prisoners, including those with learning disabilities and mental health issues, will no longer have access to legal aid to address grievances about their treatment that cannot be addressed through the internal prison requests and complaints system.”
Fr Gerry McFlynn, who manages the ICPO’s work in Britain, said that, without legal aid, abused prisoners will probably have to be represented by “inexperienced clerks” and warned that experienced lawyers “will quickly disappear from the scene”.
“These ‘reforms’ will destroy prison law as we have known it and result in the vast majority of prisoners being without good quality legal representation in the future,” he added.
“The proposed cuts in funding will make life even more difficult for Irish prisoners and will have potentially disastrous consequences for prisoners, their families and society as a whole.”
The ‘treatment issues’ about which prisoners might want to complain include bullying by prison staff, discrimination and communication with friends and family outside prison.
Reinforcing the ICPO’s criticism, the Caritas Social Action Network has raised concerns that withdrawing legal aid from prisoners could leave vulnerable inmates without the option of redress.
According to a Freedom of Information request sent by the London-based Catholic charity, 61 prison employees were subject to disciplinary action for their treatment of prisoners in the 12 months to April 2013, while 26 employees were dismissed for their actions.
The figures also suggest that mistreatment of prisoners is a growing issue, with the number of staff subject to disciplinary action increasing every year since 2008.
“Whilst people who have committed a crime may be rightly deprived of their liberty, they should always be treated with dignity and respect and should have access to appropriate recourse if their rights are violated,” said CSAN’s chief executive Helen O’Brien.
“A strong and accessible legal aid system for treatment cases provides an important safeguard against inappropriate treatment towards prisoners and serves to protect not only the individuals concerned but the integrity of our criminal justice system as a whole.”
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice told The Irish Post that preventing prisoners from claiming legal aid to contest their treatment would save taxpayers £4million and reduce the number of legally-aided cases brought by prisoners each year by 11,000.
She also sought to quell fears that vulnerable prisoners would suffer, saying that the National Offender Management System uses comprehensive screening to ensure that sufficient adjustments are made to enable prisoners with learning difficulties to use the prisoner complaints system.
“Millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is spent every year supplying lawyers for prisoners to bring unnecessary legal cases,” the spokesperson added.
“The vast majority of these types of complaint can and should be dealt with by the prison service’s complaints system.
“At around £2 billion a year we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world and can no longer avoid taking a long hard look to ensure we are getting best value for every penny we spend.
“Legal aid must be preserved for where a lawyer’s services are genuinely needed.”
Other aspects of the proposed legal aid reforms have come under fire from legal experts.
The Bar Council, which represents Britain’s barristers, said the proposals will “irreversibly damage” the international reputation Britain’s justice system.
In its 150-page response to the Ministry of Justice’s consultation on legal aid, the Council is particularly critical of plan to deprive defendants of a choice of solicitor in favour of a price-competitive tendering process.
"There is no avoiding the simple fact that these proposals would move us from having a justice system which is admired all over the world, to a system where price trumps all,” said Maura McGowan QC, chairman of the Council.
“Price-competitive tendering may look as though it achieves short-term savings, but it is a blunt instrument that will leave deep scars on our justice system for far longer.”
She added that the proposals lacked sufficient evidence to attract support and would not be easily removed once implemented.
Sir Anthony Hooper, a former senior judge, warned that people with a disability would be left without the freedom to choose a lawyer who understood their needs while those involved in complex cases would be unable to find a specialist.
"If I'm arrested in Norwich on a complex fraud case, for example, I would be able under the present system to find maybe a solicitors in London or Manchester, or wherever it may be, who specialise in difficult fraud cases," he told the BBC’s Today programme.
"Not now. Someone will turn up at the door and say 'I'm representing you. And by the way, I'm employed by the following company'."
Defending its proposals, the Government has said the right to a fair trial would not be affected by the reforms and lawyers would have to meet quality standards.
Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said: "We have one of the best legal professions in the world, but at a time of major financial challenges, the legal sector cannot be excluded from the Government's commitment to getting better value for taxpayers' money.
“We believe costs paid to lawyers through legal aid should reflect this.”
He added: “These changes are about getting the best value for the taxpayer and will not in any way affect someone's right to a fair trial."