One month on from the introduction of the latest cuts to legal aid, I must be the only prisoner in the system that actually thinks it might be good for prisoners.
For years prison law solicitors have been divided into two camps. Those who are genuinely in the profession because they want to make a difference, and those who only seem to care about the money, and avoid doing any actual work at all costs. The trouble is, prisoners have no way of knowing which are which until it’s too late.
For years I’ve thought that the only real solution is for prisoners to learn how to represent themselves. Prison conditions didn’t improve through the nineties because of solicitors, it was because a large number of prisoners (predominantly convicted IRA members) learnt how to use the system to change the system, and set to work making the world around them that little bit more bearable.
The same thing has been seen in the States. Over there legal aid is restricted even for criminal law, let alone prison law. But as a result, a huge number of prisoners fought for the right to have access to extensive legal libraries and, in some cases, even internet access, so that they can fight their cases for themselves. The right of access to the courts (and this means meaningful access, where your prospects of success are not excessively diminished by the fact that you are in prison) is one enshrined by law. Many prisoners have already used that right to conduct cases for themselves. Jailhouse Lawyer built an identity around it and now appears opposite Andrew Neil whenever prison law is even mentioned on the Daily Politics. Ben Gunn was told by more people than I think he’d care to remember that his fights had only resulted in his spending longer in prison. The fact is, that might be true. But only because not enough prisoners support one another or even support themselves. The system is able to persecute those who fight for what they are entitled to because not enough of us do it. If we all did, they would have no choice but to put things right.
Up until now the availability of legal aid has allowed the prison law profession to become overrun by solicitors who don’t even have good intentions. It’s not all of them, it might not even be most of them, but it’s enough of them for it to have become a serious problem. Now that legal aid is restricted, prisoners will have no choice but to pick up the baton themselves if they want to pursue their cases. It’s time we fought for our own legal libraries. Time we stood up for our own rights. Time we learned how to make a difference. Not because we want to beat the system. But because we just want it to work.