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Court of Appeal overturns government's decision to cut legal aid for prisoners

The Ministry of Justice must now take action to rectify the shortfalls in the system.

Almost seven months after the Court of Appeal ruled government cuts to legal aid for prisoners are unlawful because they are inherently unfair, the Ministry of Justice has written to the Supreme Court withdrawing its application to appeal the decision.

The Howard League for Penal Reform and Prisoners’ Advice Service (PAS), who brought the legal challenge, has written to the Lord Chancellor asking for immediate action to give effect to the judgment, which was handed down in April.

The government’s withdrawal of its application means that the Court of Appeal’s decision is final.

In reaching its decision the Court heard that prisons were overcrowded and the cuts had profound consequences for prisoners, including “the mentally unwell, those with learning or other disabilities, the illiterate, those who do not or hardly speak English, and young people”.

The government must now take action to rectify the shortfalls in the system.

Since cuts to legal aid for prisoners came into force in December 2013, violence and self-injury in prisons have risen to record levels.

More prisoners than ever before have called the Howard League and the Prisoners' Advice Service to seek help. Calls to the two charities’ advice lines have increased by almost 50 per cent since the cuts were imposed.

Laura Janes, Legal Director at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “For the past seven months, hundreds of prisoners have been stuck in the system without the legal support they need to move forward, even though the Court of Appeal made it clear that this was inherently unfair and therefore unlawful. “We are pleased that the Lord Chancellor has now withdrawn his appeal and hope that urgent steps will be taken to give effect to the judgment.”

Deborah Russo, Joint Managing Solicitor of the Prisoners’ Advice Service, said: “After a long wait and years of battling through the courts we at PAS very much welcome the Secretary of State’s decision to finally accept the Court of Appeal’s ruling of inherent unfairness of the legal aid cuts imposed on prisoners back in December 2013.

“We believe that urgent action is now required to reinstate legal aid for some of the most vulnerable members of our society.”

The legal challenge by the Howard League and the Prisoners' Advice Service began in 2013. At that time, prisoners were completely shut out from any possibility of getting legal aid for a wide range of problems.

In the time between then and the cases coming before the Court of Appeal in January and February this year, the government conceded on four areas of concern.

This left five key problems for the Court of Appeal to consider and, in three of the five, judges found the cuts to be inherently unfair.