"Must try harder" could be seen by many as the mid-term report on beleaguered Home Secretary Michael Howard. However, in the view of this solicitor he has recently tried a little too hard in one respect.
Last November the Home Secretary issued the innocuous sounding 'Instruction to Governors Number 70 of 94' which said: "Prisoners will no longer be permitted temporary release to attend meetings with their legal advisers. They should in all cases be required to attend the prison."
Stung by tabloid press suggestions that prisons were in fact like holiday camps (although rather easier to get out of), Howard promised a baying House of Commons that he would cut the amount of leave given to convicted prisoners by 40 per cent. One step towards achieving this was to remove at a stroke the opportunity for prisoners to be given special leave to attend meetings with their solicitors and counsel. Readers of The Lawyer will know that very often it is easier to deal with complex legal issues in one's office or at counsel's chambers, with all necessary papers and without the time pressure of a fixed visiting period, than to travel with minimum documentation to a prison which is often not equipped for formal legal visits; where visiting times are restricted and where, in many cases, the visiting accommodation is shared. It is hard enough to advise one's own clients without – as this writer experienced recently on a visit to an open prison – having to be involved in a discussion at the next table about another prisoner's divorce.
Quite apart from the fact that many prisoners who previously had been risk-assessed as safe to attend legal conferences without escort or hindrance will now find themselves unable to do so, there is something ironic in the Home Secretary imposing such a heavy, extra burden on the Legal Aid Fund. Not only will counsel and solicitors need to travel long distances to see their clients but the timing requirements of the prisons will make it much more inconvenient for such conferences to take place at all.
All this of course happens when much more dangerous criminals seem to have little trouble breaking out of Parkhurst Prison – although one suspects they have not done so for the purpose of a legal visit.
Guy Harvey is litigation partner and head of the business fraud unit at Simpson Curtis.