April has proven a busy month in terms of criminal law news. In particular, significant reforms to prisons and courts have been abandoned, the Council of Europe has raised serious concerns over the English prison system, and the Court of Appeal has examined the lawfulness of legal aid cuts.
In the wake of the announcement of a snap general election, it was announced that the controversial Prisons and Courts Bill has been abandoned.
The legislation had not yet been fully examined by Parliamentary committee. However, as Parliament will now unexpectedly be dissolved due to the general election, the Bill has been abandoned for the foreseeable future.
The Bill had included proposals to reform the prison system as well as the introduction of the online pleadings system (which had previously been analysed here). Some feared that the online pleading system may threaten access to justice and they may therefore welcome the scrapping of this legislation.
However, prison reformers may be disappointed that the Bill is no longer going ahead. The Bill had proposed to set out a new framework and clear system of accountability for prisons. The Bill also aimed to articulate in law that a key purpose of prison is to reform and rehabilitate offenders.
The Government had also said that the Bill would have given Governors control of budgets for education, employment and health and they will be held to account for getting people off drugs, into jobs and learning English and maths.
It seems, for now at least, that these reforms will have to wait.
The scrapping of the Prisons and Courts Bill is perhaps particularly concerning in light of a report published this month. The Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) has published a report which highlights concerns about England’s prison system.
The CPT visited the UK last year. In their report, concerns are raised around violence and overcrowding in particular. The CPT noted that it was ‘deeply concerned by the amount of severe generalised violence evident in each of the prisons visited, notably inter-prisoner violence and attacks by prisoners on staff.’
Injuries documented in the report included cases of scalding water being thrown over victims and wounds inflicted by make-shift knives.
The report also highlights that prisoners felt staff responded slowly to violent incidents and that, as a result, prisoners feel unsafe. Overcrowding is also an issue, with two inmates regularly sharing cells designed for one.
In light of these findings, the CPT concluded that the duty of care to protect prisoners was not always being discharged and that none of the establishments visited could be considered safe for prisoners or staff.
The CPT therefore recommended that ‘concrete measures be taken to bring prisons back under the effective control of staff, reversing the recent trends of escalating violence.’ The CPT noted that, at the time of the visit, the Prisons’ Bill was still to be finalised and recommended that concrete and effective measures to address safety and tackle violence should be prioritised.
It remains to be seen how the Government will formally respond to the report, particularly following the abandonment of the prison reforms outlined above.
However, unlike the Prisons and Courts Bill, the Criminal Finances Bill may be finalised before Parliament dissolves.
The Criminal Finances Bill amends the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 and also creates corporate offences for cases where a person associated with a body corporate or partnership facilitates the commission by another person of a tax evasion offence. Line by line examination of the Bill took place during the final day of committee stage on 3 April. The next step in the legislative process is House of Lords Report stage, set to begin on 25 April.
It will be of particular interest for barristers such as myself, working in complex white collar crime actions, to see how this Bill progresses.
Also this month, the Government lost a judicial review in the Court of Appeal in relation to access to legal aid for prisoners.
In 2013, it was decided that certain categories of prisoner were no longer eligible for legal aid. However, the Court of Appeal has held that the system was unlawful and legal aid should be available for pre-tariff reviews by the Parole Board, reviews of category-A high-security status, and decisions on placements within close supervision centres.
The Court noted that the Government had argued that there were sufficient alternatives to legal aid and legal representation in place to allow prisoners to effectively participate in the process.
However, the judgment highlighted that, at a time when the prison system is under considerable pressure, there is insufficient capacity to fill the gaps created by the removal of legal aid. In light of the discussion above concerning the CPT report, this is perhaps unsurprising.
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Case of YZ (and A.N.other) 2019 EWCA CRIM 466 judgment handed down on 19 March 2019. Our client sentenced to a term of imprisonment of 6 years after entering guilty pleas for sexual assault of a child and the making and distribution of indecent image.