The Independent View: Legal Aid for children in prison. A disastrous day for liberal values

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?

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

* Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform

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This entry was posted in Op-eds and The Independent View.


  • I am horrified to read this. I hadn’t realised that children in prison were going to be losers in the legal aid reforms proposed in the first place, but knew that lots of other people in need of justice would lose out. Chris Grayling has listened to the powerful lobby of private practice solicitors (and they did deserve listening to), in making a u turn on their demands, but not at all to the powerless in need of access to justice.

  • Martin Caffrey 5th Sep '13 - 4:17pm

    This party and it’s members, and supporters, must be very proud. Well done on all your accomplishments in government.

  • Helen Dudden 5th Sep '13 - 7:43pm

    I was at the very recent consultation on family law, well done, you have brought some changes. It was added at the end, we should all go away and consider what this would do for the future.

    I will not make comments, but the values of these changes were negative.

  • Richard Dean 5th Sep '13 - 9:46pm

    This is a bit unbelievable.

    I would expect that children in prison most need some form of individual and collective social care, something that approximates to family, rather than legal aid. I would expect them to be not locked in cells for most of their waking hours, because such locking is torture too. I would expect them to spend as much time in a school in prison as anyone of the same age outside spends in school outside. I would expect many more staff to be needed per child than would be needed per adult, and for the primary function of the staff to be care rather than discipline or punishment.

    My concept of legal aid has been as aid to fight a court case or to make a complaint. If such social and educational care is being provided, as it should be, then there would surely be enough eyes and ears available to catch abuses. It would only be when abuses could not be minimized or dealt with by those carers that a lawyer would need to get involved.

    So I am now very perplexed. Are we really not caring for children in prison, except through a legal aid system which does not seem to have been originally designed to do that?

  • Yes, it is quite unbelievable that anyone should think that incarcerated children would *not* stand in need of legal assistance, something which to most people they would seem in obvious need of, more indeed than any other prisoners except the mentally disabled.

  • Peter Hayes 5th Sep '13 - 11:00pm

    I do wonder how long I keep paying my party membership, supporting Liberal minded charities looks a better idea, except they will be gagged before an election unless the party gets serious about the political funding bill before parliament.

  • I take back some of my criticism about Grayling only listening to the powerful lobbies. I have found tonight that “legal aid for people in immigration detention (such as bail and unlawful detention cases) will be saved”.
    that is something that Liberal Democrats for Seekers of Sanctuary fought hard for and did a lot of lobbying. So we are pleased about that – BUT it does not mean I am still upset about young people in prison as written about in this article. the fuss must go on ….

  • Just what are the Lib Dems for now? Like Peter Hayes I see no point in supporting the party. I am keeping my membership mainly for the day when I can vote against Clegg.

  • A Social Liberal 6th Sep '13 - 1:17pm

    Taking away the right to legal aid is wrong, whether it is for children in prison, prisoners or divorcing couples. The introduction of such means that recourse to the law is now once again the a privilage of the rich.

  • Richard Dean 6th Sep '13 - 1:29pm

    I agree with “A Social Liberal”. Very well put. Provided of course that legal aid is needed.

  • Whilst the removal of legal aid is concerning, we shouldn’t think that this means the removal of access to the law at no cost to the client; that decision is in the hands of the legal industry. Or is the legal industry like the construction industry addicted to state handouts?

  • Helen Dudden 10th Sep '13 - 8:42am

    There are of course qualifying criteria to applying for legal aid, if in this country or “cross border” This is used for as stated cross border cases.

    I do not support the use of public funding for those who are able to pay for themselves. Law is meant to improve the rights of those who need to use it, it should be there for those who have problems and need support.

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