Doughty Street has always been the home of prison law. Our members have been involved in many of the leading cases in the UK courts over the last quarter century which have brought about important advances in prisoners’ rights and developed key principles in human rights and administrative law. They include establishing prisoners’ rights of access to the courts; the right to judicial review of prison adjudications; rights to parole review; and procedural fairness.
One such landmark case was R v. Home Secretary, ex parte Simms. The House of Lords ruled that a Home Office ban on prisoners talking to journalists was unlawful and a contravention of basic human rights. A prisoner had a legitimate interest in seeking to challenge the safety of his conviction, and to enlist the investigative resources of the media in obtaining new evidence, and so a refusal to allow an interview necessary for that purpose threatened the prisoner’s ability to gain access to justice. It was also an unjustifiable breach of the right to free expression. The unlawful policy which was challenged in Simms showed that prison bars were often used not only to keep the prisoners in, but also to keep the world out. Doughty Street has worked with many charities and expert groups to ensure that there is proper external access to prisons – to inspect; to monitor; to consider complaints; to report.
The Howard League for Penal Reform and Doughty Street barristers brought a series of cases throughout the 2000s concerning the rights of children both in and leaving prison. The first of these, the 2002 case of R (Howard League for Penal Reform) v. Home Secretary, was supported by Sir David Ramsbotham, the former Chief Inspector of Prisons, and eight national children’s and penal reform charities. This case led the High Court to rule that the Children Act 1989 continued to apply to children in Young Offender Institutions. Over the next decade, this ruling was used as the basis for great advances for children in prison, including cases establishing rights to assessments of children’s needs, both while in prison and their future needs on leaving prison. Doughty Street has also brought multiple successful challenges to prison policies and practices concerning Mother and Baby Units and Childcare Resettlement leave establishing that both children and female prisoners have both procedural and substantive rights.
In the past 15 years prison law has become markedly more complex, with the creation of new sentences, new post-release monitoring mechanisms, and a growing and changing prison population (including foreign national prisoners). These pressures have coincided with drastic cuts to legal aid for prisoners. Doughty Street has been to the fore in challenging these developments, both in the courts and through campaigns.
Fyodor Dostoevsky said that, “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” If we are to have a prison system which reflects well on our society, we will continue to challenge its failings.
More information about our work for prisoners can be found at our prison law and criminal justice team page. There is also a substantial overlap between the work undertaken on prisoners’ rights and the work by the inquests and inquiries team.