Justice Minister, David Ford, addressed concerns on staffing pressures in local prisons during today’s Question Time. Departures from the Prison Service and high sickness levels have created ongoing staffing pressures. “The service has kept staffing levels under review and worked to maximise existing resources through the use of staff redeployment and continued robust management of, and support for, absentees. A re-profiling exercise looking comprehensively at operational staffing levels across the service has been completed, and representatives of the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) were consulted prior to the introduction of those new profiles. The profiles were agreed and introduced on a phased basis in all three establishments in October and early November. ” The Prison Service also launched a new recruitment campaign in October which received 1,700 applications and should help to ease pressures.
The Minister then provided the House with an update on the legal aid dispute between his Department, the Bar Council and the Law Society. The Bar Council and the Law Society have challenged the remuneration for Crown Court cases introduced in May by way of judicial review. In addition, the Criminal Bar Association and a number of solicitors’ firms have decided not to represent their clients for work that will be paid under the new fees. The High Court judgement ruled against the Department on two specific areas, namely the absence of a trial preparation fee for solicitors and the way in which the Department undertook its regulatory impact assessments. Departmental officials continue to meet members of both sides of the profession to discuss a range of legal aid issues, including Crown Court fees. Further meetings have taken place since the judgement. Mr Ford also met representatives of the Bar Council and the Law Society last week, when both advised that they were considering an appeal. The Minister has “made it clear to the professional bodies that I am prepared to listen to any reasonable proposition and to consider adjustments when real issues are identified”. In the meantime, officials are developing specific proposals to address the judicial review finding in respect of guilty plea fees for solicitors.
The Minister also answered questions on domestic violence, transgender prisoners, legacy issues, ‘A Fresh Start’ funding and the Coroners Service.