Scottish prisoner successfully challenges decision refusing permission to own a laptop

Email on computer

Photo credit: The Guardian

Beggs, Re Judicial Review, [2016] CSOH 153 – read judgment.  

The refusal to allow a Scottish prisoner to purchase a laptop for use in prison has been successfully challenged in the Outer House of the Court of Session. However, the Outer House decision focussed on the flawed decision making process as opposed to the substantive conclusion reached by prison authorities.

Background

In 2001, the petitioner was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. Whilst in prison, the petitioner, Mr Beggs, made a number of requests to be allowed to purchase a laptop. Mr Beggs intended for this laptop to be used to prepare responses to his lawyers in connection to a number of civil and criminal court actions in which he was involved. Additionally, Mr Beggs intended for the laptop to be used for educational purposes. However, each request made by Mr Beggs was refused.

This issue had been raised as early as 2002. The Scottish Prison Complaints Commissioner had stated that Mr Beggs “is a highly educated, intelligent man whose literacy is excellent”. The formal recommendations stemming from the Commissioner’s consideration of the matter was that Mr Beggs should be provided with a word processor and a printer to assist with his legal casework. However, no such access was forthcoming. As a result, Mr Beggs raised a first set of judicial review proceedings. Such proceedings were halted prior to the first hearing after the authorities agreed to provide computer facilities and a printer. This arrangement between Mr Beggs and the authorities at HMP Peterhead did not operate smoothly. Mr Beggs was allowed to access a communal laptop provided by the prison. However, another prisoner was often using this laptop. As a result, Mr Beggs made a request for permissions to have his own personal laptop.

Scottish Policy on personal laptops

The Governors and Managers Action Notices 84A of 1998 and 15A of 1999 (“GMA 1998” and “GMA 1999”) are the relevant policy documents covering prisoner ownership of computers/word processors. Under GMA 1998 there was a prohibition on prisoners in closed establishments from owning such devices (which would include laptops). However, GMA 1999 relaxed this position and allowed a prisoner to own a laptop in “exceptional cases” if “compelling reasons” had been shown. Additionally, there was the need to demonstrate that any security concerns could be adequately addressed.

This scheme for ownership of laptops operated separately from the various schemes allowing prisoners to access prison-owned laptops. The relevant protocol was most recently updated in March 2013. It only afforded prisoners access for legal work and required completion of a written application form. Access would not be provided unless the individual could show “real prejudice to his case” if access were restricted. Additionally, resources were limited as prisons only owned a certain number of laptops (which cost £1,000 to purchase). All in all, the scheme for accessing prison owned laptops was very restrictive and of little practical use.

Requests for a laptop

Mr Beggs initial request to the governor of HMP Peterhead was refused. Whilst recognising that “compelling circumstances” under GMA 1999 existed to depart from the general ban of laptops contained in GMA 1998, the governor refused the request due to the fact that the protocol for accessing communal computer equipment adequately met Mr Beggs’ needs.

Mr Beggs made a number of similar requests following this initial refusal. All requests were unsuccessful and often referenced the fact that the ability to access a communal laptop was sufficient.

In March 2014, having been moved to HMP Edinburgh, the petitioner made another request to be allowed a laptop. Again, he emphasised that a laptop was necessary to allow him manage the vast amount of legal documents that had amassed from various legal actions and also to allow him to further his academic interests. The governor of HMP Edinburgh refused this request. This time, Mr Beggs’ request was refused due to a failure to show that “exceptional circumstances” justifying the provision of a laptop existed as required under GMA 1999. The governor also noted that there were other individuals in the prison who were able to manage their cases without utilising a laptop.

It is this decision of March 2014 that the petitioner sought to have judicially reviewed.

Outer House Decision

Lord Malcolm began his decision by considering the relevant policy documents. As discussed above, GMA 1998 and 1999 established a system that required the individual to show “compelling circumstances” to justify departing from the general ban on prisoners in closed establishments owning laptops and that the relevant security concerns could be addressed. Lord Malcolm noted that only one individual had previously applied for a personal laptop, namely the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombings, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi.  he had been allowed a laptop. Accordingly, it was clear that the relevant security concerns could be addressed.

Further, the existence of prison-owned laptops was irrelevant. The protocol allowing access to communal laptops existed independently of the scheme for personal laptops under GMA 1998 and 1999. The “very restrictive” prison laptop protocol could not be relied upon as a justification for refusing a personal laptop (despite the fact that such reasoning had been adopted by numerous decision makers in response to Mr Beggs’ previous requests prior to March 2014).

In considering the specific refusal reviewed by Mr Beggs, that of March 2014, Lord Malcolm noted that the governor of HMP Edinburgh merely stated that the petitioner’s circumstances were not “exceptional” and therefore there was no need to provide a personal laptop. But Lord Malcolm, whilst not explicitly disagreeing with the conclusion, empathised with Mr Beggs. Due to a number of factors, including the early positive response of the Scottish Prisons Complaints Commissioner, the undertaking agreed in the context of the first judicial review proceedings, and the initial decision of the governor of HMP Peterhead that “compelling circumstances” existed, Mr Beggs could reasonably expect his position to be considered “exceptional”. A decision that all of the above, amongst other considerations, did not amount to “compelling circumstances” should be be afforded “a more considered, detailed, and reasoned response than anything provided [to Mr Beggs] so far”.

As a result, Lord Malcolm reduced the decision of March 2014 and all subsequent decisions.

Comment

Ultimately, this decision of the Outer House relates purely to the decision making process adopted by the prison authorities. It’s easy to have sympathy with Mr Beggs. Despite previous assurances and, at first glance, clear “exceptional circumstances” he was repeatedly refused permission to buy his own personal laptop. These refusals included no reasons which effectively prevented Mr Beggs from being able to assess the height of the hurdle he had to clear in order to be successful.

The result of this judgment is that the governor of HMP Edinburgh will have to consider Mr Begg’s request afresh. In considering the substantive question of whether Mr Begg’s should be allowed a laptop there appears a number of factors in favour of granting permission. First, Mr Beggs has always offered to pay for the laptop himself. Instead of costing the authorities money, this would actually result in less reliance being placed on the limited number of communal laptops provided by the prison. Secondly, there is clearly no insurmountable issues regarding security; Mr al-Megrahi was provided a laptop, and numerous prisoners use communal laptops under the relevant protocol whilst in closed establishments. Finally, it may appear inconsistent to allow prisoners to enjoy Xboxes and PlayStations, which can also potentially access wifi and are explicitly permitted, whilst refusing to allow Mr Beggs to purchase a laptop for legal and educational purposes.

Prison law failing trans people: the Round-up

 

In the news

LGBT campaigners have called for an urgent reform of the law, following the death of 21 year-old transgender woman Vicky Thompson in an all-male prison. Ms Thompson had previously said that she would take her own life if she were placed in a prison for men.

The system of locating transgender people within the prison estate has recently come into criticism after transgender woman Tara Hudson was placed at HMP Bristol, an all-male establishment. Ms Hudson spoke of being sexually harassed by other prisoners, before a petition signed by more than 150,000 people led to her eventual transfer to a women’s prison. Statistics from the US suggest that transgender women in male prisons are 13 times more likely than the general prison population to be sexually assaulted while incarcerated.

Under the current rules, in most cases prisoners must be located “according to their gender as recognised under UK law”, although the guidance allows discretion where the individual is “sufficiently advanced in the gender reassignment process.” But the case of Vicky Thompson has been said to show that “the law is simply not working. For people living for years as women to be sent to serve sentences in prisons for men is inviting disaster.”

Responding to a question on the issue, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Andrew Selous has stated that the government intends to implement “revised policy guidance… in due course.”

In other news:

  • The Guardian: The Metropolitan Police has issued an unreserved apology and paid substantial compensation to women who were deceived into forming long-term intimate sexual relationships with undercover police officers. The police force acknowledged that the relationships had been “a violation of the women’s human rights, an abuse of police power and caused significant trauma.”
  • BBC: Members of the public and journalists will be permitted to attend the majority of hearings in the Court of Protection, where issues affecting sick or vulnerable people are heard. The new pilot scheme is intended to provide greater transparency, whilst safeguarding the privacy of the people involved.
  • MPs on the justice select committee have called for the scrapping of the criminal courts charge, voicing “grave misgivings” about whether it is “compatible with the principles of justice.” The charge of up to £1,200 is imposed on convicted criminals, and is not means-tested. In its report, the parliamentary committee expressed concern that the charge, which is higher for those convicted after pleading not guilty, was creating “perverse incentives” affecting defendant behaviour. The BBC reports here.
  • The Legal Voice: The Ministry of Justice has announced that the introduction of duty provider contracts will be postponed until 1 April 2016. A number of legal proceedings have been issued, challenging the legitimacy of the procurement process. The decision has been welcomed by the Bar Council, which has consistently opposed measures it claims would “damage access to justice and the provision of high quality advocacy services.”
  • BBC: A couple from north west London have been found guilty of keeping a man enslaved in their home for 24 years, in “a shocking case of modern slavery.” The couple had “total psychological control” over their victim, threatening that if he left the house he would be arrested by police as an illegal immigrant.

In the courts

The Court found that a family of asylum seekers evicted from an accommodation centre had been exposed to degrading treatment, in violation of their rights under article 3 ECHR. The family had been left in conditions of extreme poverty, without basic means of subsistence for a period of four weeks. The Belgian authorities had not paid due consideration to the vulnerability of the applicants, who had small children including a seriously disabled daughter.

UK HRB posts

Best interests, hard choices: The Baby C case – Leanne Woods

Events

If you would like your event to be mentioned on the Blog, please email the details to Jim Duffy, at jim.duffy@1cor.com.

Release of Shaker Aamer, but UK authorities face difficult questions – the Round-up

In the news

Following almost fourteen years of detention without trial, the last British resident to be held in Guantanamo Bay, Shaker Aamer, has been released. Amnesty International has described Aamer’s plight as “one of the worst of all the detainees at Guantanamo,” given the time involved, the lengthy spells in solitary confinement and the torture he was allegedly subjected to.

“The case against the US authorities that perpetrated this travesty of justice, and British ministers and security personnel who allegedly colluded with them, should now be vigorously pursued”, writes the Observer. Long-standing questions remain surrounding claims of UK complicity in human rights abuses: in the 2009 civil case of former Guantanamo detainee Binyam Mohamed, the High Court pointedly noted that the UK’s relationship with US authorities went “far beyond that of a bystander or witness to the alleged wrongdoing.” Continue reading

Restrictions on books in prisons declared unlawful by the High Court

Cornerstone-bookshopR (on the application of Gordon-Jones) v Secretary of State for Justice and Governor of HM Prison Send [2014] EWHC 3997 (Admin)read judgment

Contrary to what some media reports would have us believe, Prison Service Instruction (“PSI”) 30/2013 did not impose an absolute ban on books in prisons. It did, however, impose severe restrictions on the possession or acquisition of books which a prisoner can treat as his or her own. The High Court has found that those restrictions could not be justified by the limited provision of prison library services and are therefore unlawful.

The Claimant is a prisoner serving an indefinite sentence for the protection of the public at HMP Send. She has a doctorate in English literature and a serious passion for reading. The books she wants to read are often not the sort which are required by fellow prisoners or readily available through the prison library (the Dialogues of Marcus Aurelius and Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, for example, crop up in the judgment) and she therefore relies on having books sent or brought to her by people outside the prison.

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Human rights and public law challenge to prisoner’s release conditions fails

Prisoners releaseR(Gul) v Secretary of State for Justice [2014] EWHC 373 (Admin) – read judgment

Mr Gul had been imprisoned for a period, on 24 February 2011, for disseminating terrorist publications. When he was released on 6 July 2012, this was under licence, as is common following the release of dangerous prisoners. Mr Gul challenged some of the conditions of his licence by judicial review. The court rejected his challenge.

The purposes of releasing offenders from prison on licence, allowing them liberty under conditions to be supervised by a probation officer, are clear enough – protecting the public, preventing reoffending, and securing the successful reintegration of the prisoner into the community, as set out in Section 250 (8) Criminal Justice Act 2003.

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How to be fair about transfer to Broadmoor

hospitalR (L) v West London Mental Health Trust; (2) Partnership in Care (3) Secretary of State for Health [2014] EWCA Civ 47 read judgment

Jeremy Hyam of 1 Crown Office Row was for the Trust. He was not involved in the writing of this post.

L, aged 26, was in a medium security hospital for his serious mental health problems. Concerns about his animus towards another patient arose, and the Admissions Panel of Broadmoor (a high security hospital) agreed to his transfer. It did so without allowing his solicitor to attend and without giving him the gist of why his transfer was to be made.

So far, so unfair, you might think, as a breach of the common law duty to come up with a fair procedure.

But the next bit is the difficult bit. How does a court fashion a fair procedure without it becoming like a mini-court case, which may be entirely unsuitable for the issue at hand? This is the tricky job facing the Court of Appeal. And I can strongly recommend Beatson LJ’s thoughtful grappling with the problem, and his rejection of the “elaborate, detailed and rather prescriptive list of twelve requirements” devised by the judge, Stadlen J.

Note, though L eventually lost, the CA considered that proceedings were justified because of their wider public interest. Something for Parliament to deliberate upon when it debates Grayling’s proposed reforms for judicial review: see my recent post.

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Justice Secretary wins and loses in discrimination challenge to post-prison facilities for women

Prisoners releaseGriffiths v Secretary of State for Justice (Equality and Human Rights Commission intervening) [2013] EHWC 4077 (Admin)  – read judgment.

Oliver Sanders of 1 Crown Office Row represented the Defendant in this case and Adam Wagner also acted for the Defendant prior to the substantive hearing. They are not the writers of this post.

Two female prisoners nearing the date on which they would be considered for release on licence, brought conjoined challenges against the Secretary of State for Justice in respect of the provision of ‘approved premises.’ The Claimants challenged the alleged continuing failure to make adequate provision for approved premises to accommodate women prisoners like them released on licence.

Mr Justice Cranston rejected the argument that the limited number of approved premises for women treated female prisoners released on licence into such premises less favourably than comparable men. He held that despite the likelihood of a greater geographic separation from their homes and families, the Secretary of State had not discriminated directly or indirectly against female prisoners. However, the Secretary of State had failed to fulfil his duty under the Equality Act 2010 to consider the impact of the limited provision of approved premises of women.

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