Since the Criminal Legal Aid (Remuneration etc. ) (Amendment) Regulations 2015 were laid before Parliament on 10th June 2015, several of our fellow professionals’ representative associations have issued responses. The 48 hours given to criminal lawyers to respond to the consultation which preceded them made no mention of prison law.
This preliminary statement is necessary given the severity of the Regulations’ effect on our own members.
Our members – both Barristers and Solicitors – are impacted by the Regulations, as both fixed fees and hourly rates for prison law cases have been reduced by 8.75%. From April 2009 to December 2014, there was a 39% fall in prison law legal aid provision, driven by the reduction of 4000 free-standing advice and assistance cases. An increasing number of APL members have contacted us to confirm they cannot renew their memberships, as it is no longer possible for them to carry out work under prison law legal aid contracts.
Remaining practitioners act under considerable strain. As well as having to often travel long distances, the growing margins between different levels of derisory fixed fees, and the improbability of being paid for cases by the hour, means working more weekends and evenings. Fewer and fewer of our remaining members are likely to earn, per hour worked, the minimum wage. Commercially viable applications for contracts under the new tender are difficult, if not impossible, to foresee.
The figures above show that serious damage has been done to prison law as an area of practitioner specialism. Yet there is clear evidence that input from such practitioners gives prisoners a crucial sense of fairness, and in fact assists in achieving fair, humane and efficacious outcomes. Practitioners’ unique position as fiduciaries with prison law expertise pursuing positive outcomes for prisoners, allow a contribution to public debate on prisons which those with other experiences and expertise cannot bring.
The Regulations will leave many of our clients – most importantly – without vital redress or assistance as our members decrease in number. Advice deserts will spread. Liberty will be delayed.
We have contemplated balloting our members on direct action before. Rather than spending an extra day in detention as a result of direct action, however, a parole hearing adjournment can last for an unknown period. Members have fed back about hearings where Probation Officers walk out in the midst of giving evidence to join strike action. For APL Members to act in a similar manner would be unconscionable.
We will accordingly make a full announcement on what action the APL intends to take in due course.