Legal aid cuts have been an extremely contentious topic within the legal industry for some time now. The high court has now rejected a challenge to the justice secretary’s cuts to legal aid available to prisoners.
The high court has decided that, even if prisoners “suffer serious adverse effects,” the issue of cuts is ultimately a political one. As such, an appeal against the justice secretary’s decision, which came from both the Prisoners’ Advice Service and the Howard League for Penal Reform, has been rejected. The judges decided that they were not able to reverse the decision, which was down to the judgement of justice secretary and lord chancellor Chris Grayling.
The cuts form part of Grayling’s efforts to save a total of £220 million annually from the criminal legal aid budget. Most of the cuts that have been proposed as part of these efforts have been controversial in one way or another. Lawyers have questioned whether they are the most effective cost-saving measures and protested at the harm they could do to the availability of justice in the UK. This has led legal professionals to take protest action such as walkouts.
Both of the charities who raised the challenge have expressed an intention to appeal against the decision. According to the arguments put forward by their lawyers at the challenge’s hearing, the cuts would not only harm the rights of prisoners but also their prospects for rehabilitation. The changes were also called “unfair, irrational and inflexible.” Furthermore, it was suggested that they would lead to “hidden costs” which would ultimately place a burden of millions on the taxpayer, making them counterproductive as a money[saving measure.
According to Phillippa Kaufmann QC, representing the charities, the result of the cuts would be “huge unfairness.” She said that female prisoners would find themselves unable to gain assistance when their eligibility for places in mother-and-baby units was being reviewed, for example. She also suggested that prisoners under close supervision, being segregated, or facing resettlement issues upon release might find it difficult or impossible to get the advice and assistance they need under the new system.
However, James Eadie QC disagreed. Representing the justice secretary, he claimed that many of the arguments made opposing the changes had been reviewed by parliament already. Ultimately, he claimed, the changes were approves in light of a situation that called for “financial stringency in the legal aid system because of scarce resources.”