Sunday, May 21, 2006

Gravy Train

An article appeared in today's Guardian with the headline "Legal aid bill for parole board challenges tops £2m". There are some quotes in this article:

The legal aid bill for human rights' challenges by prisoners to parole board decisions has soared tenfold in the last five years to more than £2m, according to official figures released yesterday.


Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, last night said: "Recent changes in the law should not be a gravy train for lawyers . What we need are short, effective hearings which allow both sides to examine reasons for parole decisions."


David Davies, Conservative MP for Monmouth, who ferreted out the figures, said: "It is appalling that because of human rights laws so much taxpayers' money is being spent on allowing prisoners to be legally represented to argue their case before the parole board."

I do understand why articles like this are printed. Firstly lawyers who defend people accused of, and sometimes convicted of, crimes are easy targets. Secondly prisoners are easy targets.

The government has established a system whereby the Parole Board has hearings to determine if certain prisoners can be released. I will generalise here, but, the current system of parole kicks in when a prisoner who has been given a sentence of four years or more in prison has served between half of his sentence to two thirds of his sentence. Between the half way point and the two thirds point he can apply for parole. Provided that the prisoner is not subject to more rigorousus sentence then he must be released after serving two thirds of his sentence anyway.

So once a year a prisoner is able to apply for parole. If he is not granted parole he has to wait another year before he can apply for parole again unless he reaches the two thirds point of his sentence and is released automatically. Bearing in mind that a prisoner has one chance a year to put his case to the Parole Board he should be entitled to some help. Generally speaking us solicitors can be granted funding of up to £1,500 to represent prisoners at these hearings. We do not get paid £1,500 per case, we can submit a claim for up to £1,500. The Parole Board are experts in their field. Prisoners are prisoners and most are of substandard intelligence, many suffer from mental health issues, and do not have the ability to put their case to the Parole Board.

If the government or elected MPs really do think that system is so unfair for prisoners to be represented at parole hearings then they are free to draft new legislation to get rid of the funding for solicitors, or create another system whereby prisoners are barred from having legal representation at their hearing. The government will not change the rules because they know at the end of the day it is only fair that once a year prisoners are given some help in how to present their case to the Parole Board.

Mr. Clegg and Mr. Davies you should know better than to take cheap shots at prisoners. Mr. Clegg it is not a gravy train, it is legally aided work, have a look at the number of criminal defence, or even prison law, firms that are still in practice, that number will decrease over the year and will continue to decrease because criminal law and prison law is not a gravy train. Mr. Davies if you think it iappallinguling to let prisoners be represented at Parole Hearings by legally aided solicitors then why have you not put a private members bill before Parliament to change the current system?

Rant over.


Anonymous said...

While there is perhaps an argument for allowing professional assistance at the parole hearing, I can't see how a prisoner has a right to appeal a negative parole decision given that his sentence has already been decided by a court. Parole is a bonus, not a right.

Gavin said...

Parole hearings are not about appealing a negative decision. Aprisoner eligible for parole, gnereally, will have served between half to two thirds of their sentence of imprisonment. They can apply for parole at the half way point, and if they get to the two thirds point they must be released. Parole is an opportunity, and a right to put their case forward for release. It is not early release, but release during the currency of a sentence that has no fixed date for release.

Anonymous said...

If I understand rightly you are saying that all prisoners will only serve at most 2/3 of their sentence, unless the judge gives a minimum tem served recommendation.
So after 2/3 of sentence does prisoner have to be released, or released on parole? Is parole a right in that way?
I don't think the general public realises that any sentence dished out can legally only be served by 2/3.

Gavin said...

I am generalising but most prisoners who receive a sentence of four years or more are eligible for parole between the half way point and two thirds point of their sentence.

If the prisoner gets to the two thirds point of their sentence without being paroled they are released, not on parole but on licence.

Parole is a right.

Anonymous said...

I particularly liked the comment from Nick Clegg that, "What we need are short, effective hearings which allow both sides to examine reasons for parole decisions." I found this particularly amusing as I've never had a parole board hearing last more than an hour. In fact, in the last one I cross-examined two witnesses and gave a relatively lengthy closing speech. In total, the hearing lasted exactly one hour!

That particular prisoner received a life sentence with a four year tariff for arson. He has now served 22 years!!!!!!! He still didn't get parole!!

By the way, parole boards aren't all about release. They can also recommend a move from closed to open conditions, which is a major step in the rehabilitation of offenders.

motoring solicitors said...

Both prisoner and solicitors are easy target.