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Research Report: Taking justice into custody: summary report, Justice issues paper 2
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Taking justice into custody: summary report, Justice issues paper 2  ( 2008 )  Cite this report

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Systemic environment

As a consequence of being in prison and having legal needs, prisoners usually come into contact with a number of systems, such as the legal, custodial and bureaucratic systems. Features of, and tensions between, the systems have presented barriers to prisoners accessing justice.

They’re constantly moving around, a lot of them. And that makes it hard for them to contact people. They might contact their legal representative, [who says], ‘Okay, I’m going to come out and visit you on Thursday’. And they may be moved on Wednesday.
— Custodial officer

Firstly, according to our interviewees, the level of resourcing within DCS and public legal services, such as the Legal Aid Commission of New South Wales (Legal Aid) and the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS), seemed to threaten the capacity of these bodies to facilitate prisoners’ access to justice. For example, the number of inmates requiring time with the PLS visiting legal advice service meant that each inmate may only have five or 10 minutes to discuss their case. Many felt that this was insufficient to convey their situation and absorb the advice offered.

Opportunities to contact a lawyer by telephone or during a legal advice visit, reach the library for legal information and get legal support through welfare staff can be compromised by conflicting priorities within the custodial system, such as the emphasis placed on security and efficient management of inmates in correctional centres.

There also seemed to be clashes between the custodial system and the legal systems and processes, making it difficult for inmates to access legal help. For example:

  • the hours that lawyers were available often did not match the hours of operation within the prison (that is, when inmates were out of their cells)
  • time-limited telephone calls from prison made it particularly difficult for inmates to get help through the receptionist and call centre based systems adopted by Legal Aid and other legal service providers
  • lockdown at the prison could prevent an inmate receiving a legal visit or a consultation with the visiting legal advice service.

The AVL system was posited as a way that could circumvent some of the tensions between these external systems and internal custodial processes. However, its utility is tempered by the concern that AVL can add another layer of confusion for inmates who already have comprehension difficulties. Other initiatives, such as the recent implementation of the Centrelink outreach service, were also suggested as ways to ameliorate conflict between the different components of the broader justice system.

Finally, while procedures are in place enabling inmates to participate in their criminal matters, there are less systemic processes and facilities available to help prisoners resolve their non-criminal problems. For example, the procedures for prisoners to access government agencies such as the Department of Housing or the State Debt Recovery Office are variable, not always immediately apparent, involve a number of steps to reach and are consequently less reliable. The visiting advice service also did not routinely cover civil issues. However, the addition of the LawAccess number to inmates’ phone cards (subsequent to our interviews) has the potential to substantially improve access to advice on civil matters.


Grunseit, A, Forell, S & McCarron, E 2008, Taking justice into custody: the legal needs of prisoners - summary report, Justice issues paper 2, Law and Justice Foundation of NSW, Sydney