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Irish overseas prisioners group concerned about legal aid cuts in UK

By editor - 04 June, 2013

“Working with almost 1,000 Irish prisoners in the UK, we are extremely concerned about the effect these proposals will have on our clients.  Prisoners – including those with learning disabilities and mental health issues – will no longer have access to legal aid to address grievances about their treatment that cannot be addressed through the internal prison requests and complaints system,” said Joanna Joyce, Coordinator of the ICPO in Ireland.

The ICPO, an agency of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, is concerned that the implementation of these proposals could mean that Irish prisoners would no longer be eligible to receive legal aid to challenge their treatment in UK prisons.

Father Gerry McFlynn, Project Manager with the ICPO’s London office, added: “The massive cuts to legal aid fees for prison law work will mean that prisoners will probably be represented by inexperienced clerks while lawyers with years of experience will quickly disappear from the scene.  These ‘reforms’ will destroy prison law as we have known it and result in the vast majority of prisoners being without good quality legal representation in the future.”

Father McFlynn concluded, “The proposed cuts in funding will make life even more difficult for Irish prisoners and will have potentially disastrous consequences for prisoners, their families and society as a whole.”

Legal aid is currently available in cases that are unsuitable to be resolved through the internal prison requests and complaints system and where the prisoner does not have the means to secure advice or representation. These proposals, if implemented, will remove legal aid from all treatment cases. Treatment issues include prisoner concerns about discrimination and the behaviour of prison staff and grievances regarding prison conditions.

The Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas is a charitable organisation, which was established by the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference in 1985.  The ICPO works on behalf of Irish prisoners overseas to provide information and support to these prisoners and their families.  The ICPO is based in the Columba Centre, Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Co Kildare.

ICPO London has responsibility for providing these services across the UK. Irish prisoners constitute the third largest ethnic population of prisoners in England and Wales. The ICPO forms part of the Irish Chaplaincy in Britain, which works under the auspices of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

In 2010 ICPO celebrated its 25th anniversary and Mary McAleese the then President of Ireland said at the anniversary conference in Dublin: “Over the past 25 years, as many people turned away from prisoners and washed their hands of them, it was your (ICPO) unexpected and reliable hand of friendship which let them know that they had an innate dignity that no system could overwhelm and no act of their own could obliterate”.

Also in 2010 the Irish Times ran a feature article on Fr Gerry McFlynn, from Newcastle, Co Down, a man who has spent more time in prisons than most prisoners. He has spent a lot of time in the notorious Wormwood Scrubs prison. He looks after prisoners spiritual and other needs and often men who are slow to seek the help of anyone ask him to help with a call home, or contact with a solicitor, or often just to talk. He said that many prisoners become resigned and loose hope.

“A lot of what keeps an average person going slowly dies, it is not a pleasant thing to see. It is easy to go in and say ‘keep your spirits up’. That is easy for me to say, I am walking out of the bloody place,” he said in the Irish Times article. “It is very difficult. Some have no family contact, no visitors. They’re on their own.”

Of the 1000 or so Irish prisoners in British jails, many suffer from mental illnesses, some also have poor literacy levels and almost half are travellers.

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