Howard does U-turn on prisoner visits to lawyers

HOME Secretary Michael Howard has been forced into an embarrassing U-turn on prison policy after a threat of judicial review by Leeds firm Simpson Curtis.

The Home Office has agreed to reverse a blanket ban, introduced just two months ago, which prevented all prisoners from visiting their legal advisers.

The rule was designed to cut the amount of temporary leave for convicted prisoners by 40 per cent. But criminal lawyers have complained that the Home Secretary's “get tough” instruction to governors was a knee-jerk reaction to appease politicians worried by press reports of lax prison regimes.

Steve Wedd, vice chair of the Criminal Lawyers Solicitors Association, says: “It's a typical example of the Home Secretary grabbing a headline one day and repenting the next.

“We are just sorry that it was the courts which had to force his hand,” says Wedd of Brighton-based Wedd, Daniel.

Simpson Curtis lodged a judicial review application on behalf of a client, Wallace Duncan Smith, who was prevented from attending a meeting with his advisers.

The firm withdrew the application last week after Treasury lawyers agreed to reinstate some discretion to prison governors and to pay the firm's legal costs.

Guy Harvey, head of the business fraud unit at the Leeds firm, says staging conferences in prison can be costly and impractical, particularly when cases are complex.

“We brought the application on behalf of Mr Smith but we do have others clients in custody to whom this might apply,” he says.

“Had we not taken the steps which we did, we have no reason to believe that the blanket ban would have been altered, with considerable injustice to a number of prisoners, great inconvenience to their advisers and, not least, a wasteful increase in the claims made on the Legal Aid Board.”

A spokesman for the Home Office confirms that governors will now be allowed a degree of discretion in “exceptional circumstances”.

But he says the basic premise that prisoners should not be allowed out for conferences has not changed.

Cases where the sheer volume of papers would make transport a problem, or when a conference involved several different people, might be deemed exceptional.