Q: How did the Association of Prison Lawyers come about, what does it do and how many members does it have? What is your role?
A: The association came into being four years ago. It was an initiative by a number of lawyers who worked mainly in the field of prison law. The aim was to have a body which would share information and provide representation in an area of law which was not mainstream. This was at a time when prisoners were seeking more legal advice, for example, on parole.
Membership of the association is broadly open to people or firms who deliver legal services to prisoners and this usually entails working under an LSC contract. For its members, the organisation runs extremely regular training, with sessions every four to six weeks, with updates on various aspects ? prison law generally, community care, mental health, females in prison ? and also larger conferences, with speakers such as members of the parole board or people from the Ministry of Justice.
We have about 300 members, drawn from over 100 solicitors? firms and barristers? chambers and membership is spread across the country. Half the training is in Manchester.
I was one of the first members of the executive committee and served for two years. I am a regular trainer and I deal with press enquiries.
Q: Does the association have a president?
A: Edward Fitzgerald QC is the current president. The Bar is actively involved in the association, with many barrister members. Training is usually hosted by barristers? chambers.
Q: What is the history of legal aid for prison work and what is the position now?
A: Historically, legal aid was available for most prison issues, paid at an hourly rate, with no fixed fees. This made it attractive to criminal practitioners when fixed fees came into crime and that was when there was a large influx of lawyers into prison law. Then the Ministry of Justice conducted a review into the legal aid provisions. They made it clear that there would be fixed fees and the Association of Prison Lawyers was extremely active in lobbying the MoJ and the Legal Services Commission, trying to get the fixed fees to reflect the work done in the average case and to make sure that there was an escape clause for the complicated cases.
One of the concerns also raised by APL was that there was no form of regulation to prevent anyone with a general criminal contract from undertaking prison law work, and that people needed to be appropriately qualified to advise prisoners. As a result of our discussions, there is now a specific part of the criminal contract on prison law, with a requirement that the firm must employ someone with the appropriate supervisor standard.
Q: Is some representation in prison carried out by unqualified staff?
A: There are no rights of audience as such for tribunals in prisons, though certain aspects of the parole process can be difficult if the prisoner is not represented by someone who is a solicitor or supervised by a solicitor. I would like to think that the majority representing prisoners at hearings are in training to be lawyers or are lawyers, whether they be solicitors or legal executives. It would be disappointing if this was not the case. The practical reality for some firms under the current legal aid regime is that work is often done by trainees and paralegals but we would very much hope that those people are properly supervised and are on the path to becoming lawyers.
Q: What has been the impact on your work of the IPP sentence?
A: When these were introduced, a large number of people were sentenced to indeterminate sentences for public protection, which are, in effect, identical to life sentences. The number serving these sentences ? life and IPP ? trebled in a short period of time. All of these prisoners are entitled to be represented at the end of their sentence over parole issues and often require representation leading up to that. Certainly, there are now more prisoners requiring lawyers than there are lawyers available and the parole board has experienced some difficulties when prisoners have been unrepresented.
There is a "gateway? of written representations, when you make the case in writing for getting a parole hearing and, if the prisoner is unrepresented at this point, the prospect of getting through that gateway is lower.
Q: Is there a fall in standards in the work done by the probation service?
A: With the increase in the prison population generally and the number of indeterminate sentences, the probation service is stretched. At the same time, there has been a shift of emphasis so that they are no longer probation officers but "offender managers?, with an enormous change in approach.
While you still get some very good probation officers who will go the extra mile for clients, there are those who will do no more than simply tick boxes and only meet prisoners via telephone calls and video links.
The next step is that there will be contracts for the delivery of these services, opening the way for new service providers, outside of the traditional probation trusts. This makes the future even more uncertain.
Q: Is there any particular current problem for prisoners you would point to?
A: The general overcrowding and the enormous pressure on demand for courses is a problem, particularly for IPP prisoners and lifers. There is such a reliance on prisoners doing courses as the only way of measuring progress, and people who can?t get on courses or who continue to protest their innocence face massive disadvantages in trying to progress towards release.
One thing that has helped somewhat is that the last chairman of the parole board, Sir David Latham he has just been replaced by David Calvert-Smith ? was a powerful figure in persuading the board to be more robust in risk assessment. Release rates have improved but it is very, very difficult for people who need to do courses to get through those courses in sufficient time.
Q: Would you like to comment on Ken Clarke?s plans for prison work?
A: There is doubtless a wide range of views among our members on this and so I?m not sure I can comment on everyone?s behalf. But I think our members would be in favour of prisoners having more opportunity to do useful and purposeful activity and to be paid better for what they do.
But, on the practical side, we find that "security? always wins out. Only one tiny incident means that a whole prison is locked down and it is difficult to imagine how a normal working day can be accommodated when this is happening regularly, for example, in a high security prison.
Q: LCCSA members have been experiencing difficulties with London prisons with regard to issues such as booking visits and taking equipment into prisons. Any comments?
A: These are major concerns for our members and the Association of Prison Lawyers has recently had a meeting with the MoJ about all these areas, including the lack of consistency about what we can take into prisons. There are big problems with prisons mixing social and legal visits and with their not providing a confidential area for conferences even where they are not mixed. Every person who has done a legal visit could give an example of an enormously long wait. I went to a prison in Wales earlier this year, spent three hours getting there and was made to wait for an hour and 15 minutes before only being allowed 15 minutes to see my client.
The MoJ is keen for us to provide examples of where things are going wrong. People with examples should contact email@example.com
An application has recently been granted for a judicial review to challenge the way a particular prisoner?s legal visits have been handled. He has been convicted but has been charged with further offences allegedly committed while in prison and his solicitor has argued that interference with facilities has meant that his trial cannot be prepared properly, a potential breach of article 6.
Q: Is there a solution to these problems, such as a central booking system?
A: No-one is sure how a centralised booking system is supposed to work. We would like to see a uniformity in the way visits are booked in all prisons, perhaps then moving to a centralised system.
Q: Which is the most annoying prison in London?
A: I think any "wooden spoon? prize would rotate among them. Sometimes things are bad at one prison and sometimes at others. At Belmarsh, for example, you don?t know what to expect from one week to the next. Literally, there are times when a paper-clip is not allowed in. Pentonville is very difficult for booking-in arrangements, as is Wandsworth.
Q: Is there a difference in standard between private and public prisons?
A: Private prisons offer greater efficiency and courtesy. Many of them benefit from having modern purpose built buildings which makes their job a lot easier. I think that the public prisons could learn from the private about how to deal with people. The staff have more of a customer service approach to people on visits, rather than being resentful and suspicious. But all this relates to visiting arrangements: there are mixed views about the ability of private prisons to provide regimes and purposeful activity for prisoners.
Q: How do you feel about working in a sector which is so often vilified in the press?
A: I think the press is very depressing for our clients. For lawyers, the press attitude should not matter: it?s our job. It?s incredibly short- sighted not to realise that, if a society can?t protect its most vulnerable, then it can?t protect the rights of others.
The popular press are to blame for spreading the idea that prisons are some kind of holiday camp when the reality is that this couldn?t be further from the truth, that prisons generally are very unpleasant places to be. When people go through their first experience of being in prison, they can be absolutely despairing about the difficulties they?re experiencing which they never ever imagined.
Q: What is your personal career history and what is your current practice?
A: I trained in a high street legal aid practice in East London and, soon after I qualified, I was appointed as solicitor to the Prisoners? Advice Service. I was the first person to have that job and probably the first solicitor to work exclusively in prison law. When I?d worked there for five years, I became one of the founding partners of Bhatt Murphy, which we set up in 1998. The prison law team now has four solicitors and one trainee working with us.