Page last updated at 15:48 GMT, Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Prisoners' legal bill 'colossal'

Legal documents
The Legal Services Commission helps two million people a year

The cost to taxpayers of funding legal action brought by prisoners is almost 20 times higher than it was seven years ago, new figures have shown.

The Legal Services Commission, which administers legal aid in England and Wales, says 19m was spent in 2007-08, compared with 1.08m in 2001-02.

The bill is projected to rise to more than 45m within the next three years.

The Conservatives said the "colossal" figures highlighted "the disturbing scale of the claims culture".

The LSC, which comes under the umbrella of the Ministry of Justice, said the increase in the cost of prison law services of nearly 7 million a year was "unsustainable".

It is launching a consultation on proposals to overhaul the system "as soon as possible" to control costs and target resources more effectively.

Prison population

The LSC said a significant factor in the growing bill was increased demand for legal advice during prison disciplinary hearings and parole hearings.

It said prisoners appeared to be "increasingly interested in exercising their right to legal representation".

"The rising prison population also increases the potential for issues to arise," it added.

This report offers no credible justification for these rising costs
Shadow justice secretary Dominic Grieve

Shadow justice secretary Dominic Grieve, said the "colossal increase" in legal aid for prisoners was "inevitably at the expense of assistance for law-abiding people, who need greater legal protection at a time of recession".

"Prisoners should be treated humanely and be able to redress wrongs, but this report offers no credible justification for these rising costs, and suggests that a large proportion is spent on claims that are unsuccessful or without merit," he said.

"It highlights the disturbing scale of the claims culture, fuelled by the Human Rights Act."

The LSC is proposing two phases of reform. Ideas for the first include:

  • Revising the funding criteria to ensure that cases are only pursued where there is a realistic chance of an outcome that would be of real benefit to the prisoner
  • Replacing the current system of payment by the hour with either a standardised or fixed fee scheme
  • Limiting work to firms that meet a minimum level of expertise in prison law

The second phase of reforms could include:

  • Introducing a dedicated telephone helpline so cases can be resolved over the phone wherever possible
  • Greater use of video conferencing in prisons to make meetings between solicitors and clients quicker and less costly
  • Introducing "block contracting" where firms bid to provide services for all work at a specific prison for a given period at a set price

Carolyn Regan, chief executive of the LSC, said: "These cases involve important decisions affecting prisoners' lives.

"The proposals would change the way in which these services are funded and supplied."

The consultation will run until 5 May.

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