Today is a disastrous day for children in prison. The abolition of legal aid for children in prison will give a blanket of secrecy to child abuse.
The Howard League legal team has represented hundreds of children in prisons and privately run secure training centres to help them to progress successfully through their incarceration and to make sure the arrangements for their resettlement are safe and supportive. Legal aid to pay for this work is being abolished.
Not only will this mean that children will not get the courses they need to address their offending or the local authority support to reintegrate safely into the community, but it also means that our lawyers won’t find out about any serious abuse going on inside the prison. Access to an expert lawyer, who is on their side, who helps the children to get their entitlements and help to settle back home is one of the key ways we can all find out about what is going on inside jails.
The Justice Secretary has said that children don’t need lawyers because they can complain. Even with help from lawyers, the complaints system has been inadequate to protect children. Many of the serious issues that our lawyers deal with every day such as making sure children have a safe place to go to when they leave jail are not suitable for backwards looking complaints systems.
The Howard League successfully challenged unlawful punishment of boys by the Serco run Ashfield jail earlier this year. We have pushed the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman to investigate the physical restraint of boys when one of our clients had has arm broken by staff.
The relationship of trust built up between Howard League lawyers and children in custody has shown them that the law can be a force for good, one of the essential components of respect for the law and responsible citizenship.
The announcement that legal aid will no longer be available for prisoners means children in custody will be hidden from view, unable to get redress for abuse. The history of closed and secretive institutions that hold children is one of abuse and violence. Prisons and STCs are bad enough as intermittent inspections have shown, but without legal representation and challenge, they will get worse.
It is ironic that on the day that the secretary of state announces that children in custody will no longer have access to the law, the inspection report on Cookham Wood prison reveals that half of the boys had experienced violent restraint, that a fifth were held in solitary confinement, that they commonly spend 14 hours a day locked in cells, that safety was not assured, even after the suicide of a 15 year old last year.
Legal aid for children in custody costs the taxpayer a pittance, but protects children. In my view, that is good value.
Liberal Democrats were rightly proud of the inclusion in the Coalition agreement of a promise to end the detention of children for immigration purposes. Should they not now act to prevent the curtailing of justice for all children in custody?
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* Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform