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The struggles lawyers face accessing clients in prisons

The struggles lawyers face accessing clients in prisons


Legal aid lawyers, facing declining support, encounter severe obstacles in prison visits, hindering justice and exacerbating delays

Lawyers advocating for justice within the prison system are grappling with significant challenges, warns the Association of Prison Lawyers (APL). A recently released report by APL sheds light on the formidable difficulties lawyers face in reaching their clients behind bars, raising concerns about the erosion of fundamental rights and access to justice.

The report unveils a disheartening landscape where prisons often refuse to facilitate video links for solicitors, leaving legal practitioners with the option of waiting weeks or even months for a virtual meeting. In-person visits are also subject to severe limitations, with some prisons offering just one visit slot per week or every other week, adding to the frustration.

The situation is exacerbated by the declining presence of legal aid lawyers due to unsustainable funding. The number of prison law legal aid providers has plummeted by a staggering 85% since 2008. A report from August 2023 reveals that three-quarters of surveyed prison lawyers anticipate abandoning legal aid work within three years. Additionally, the exclusion of prison law legal aid lawyers from the 15% pay increase in September 2022, as outlined in the Bellamy review, has resulted in a real-term pay decrease of 35% since 2011.

The APL survey identified 16 prisons explicitly stating that they do not offer video links to solicitors, while others restrict usage to specific days, causing further delays. In-person visits are not spared from challenges, with limited slots, crowded visiting halls, and instances of denied authorized laptops. Delays, staff shortages, and logistical issues further compound the difficulties faced by practitioners attempting to meet their incarcerated clients.

Rikki Garg, Chairman of the APL, emphasized the urgent need for efficient access to justice. Garg expressed concerns over the erratic nature of prison policies and the lack of cohesive, centralized systems for booking visits. He presented the report to Minister Mike Freer on January 15, 2024, who pledged to investigate these concerns in line with the government's commitment to promoting digital justice.

Chris Minnoch, Director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, highlighted the crucial role timely and effective access to specialist advice plays in the justice system. The report exposes how limitations in scope, bureaucracy, and chronic underfunding have undermined the legal aid system, affecting the rights of prisoners.

Pia Sinha, Chief Executive of the Prison Reform Trust, argued that access to legal advice should not be a luxury in an overstretched prison system. With video technology widely adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic, the inability of some prisons to provide online legal visits in 2024 is deemed unacceptable.

Gemma Abbott, Legal Director at the Howard League for Penal Reform, emphasized that access to legal support is integral to justice. The inefficiencies and inadequate facilities in prisons contribute to the challenges faced by lawyers in visiting their clients, highlighting the urgent need for measures to reduce the prison population.

As the APL pushes for urgent steps to ensure efficient access to justice, the report serves as a stark reminder of the pressing issues faced by legal practitioners navigating a system that often hampers rather than facilitates their crucial work.