Irish charities say UK legal cuts will deny justice

By staff writers
June 4, 2013

The Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas has warned that cost-cutting UK legal aid proposals “will destroy prison law as we have known it” and could have “potentially disastrous consequences”.

The ICPO (also connected with the Irish chaplaincy in London) works with around 1,000 Irish prisoners in Britain. It has criticised the UK Ministry of Justice’s decision to include the abolition of legal aid for prisoners making complaints about their treatment in England and Wales.

“We are extremely concerned about the effect these proposals will have on our clients,” said Joanna Joyce, ICPO's coordinator.

She added: “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 the NGO’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”.

He continued: “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.”

“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,” he said.

The ‘treatment issues’ about which prisoners might want to complain include bullying by prison staff, discrimination and communication with friends and family outside prison, reports the Irish Post.

The Catholic NGO, Caritas Social Action Network, has also raised concerns that withdrawing legal aid from prisoners. It believes these could leave vulnerable inmates without a genuine option of redress.

A Freedom of Information request has been obtained by the London-based charity, which works with Irish prisoners.

It shows that 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 FOI-obtained 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.

“While 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,” says CSAN 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,” Ms O'Brien says.

* Irish chaplaincy in London: http://www.irishchaplaincy.org.uk/Groups/160591/Irish_Chaplaincy_in/Our_...

* Caritas Social Action Network: http://www.csan.org.uk/

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