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Research Report: 21 July 2008 Taking justice into custody: Research into prisoners' and ex-prisoners' legal needs

21 July 2008 Taking justice into custody: Research into prisoners` and ex-prisoners` legal needs

The range and depth of civil and family law problems faced by prisoners and people leaving prison is a key finding of the latest research report from the Law and Justice Foundation of NSW.

Taking justice into custody: the legal needs of prisoners interviewed prisoners, ex-prisoners, and a range of legal and non-legal service providers and organisations providing assistance to them.

The report helps to identify the different stages in the incarceration process when inmates are best able to address legal issues and prevent new ones becoming entrenched.

"The majority of prisoners are released from prison within six months of sentencing, so assistance at the right time can be crucial in addressing current criminal law problems, and avoiding the escalation of civil and family law issues into longer-term ones", says the Foundation's Director Geoff Mulherin.

The Foundation embarked on this research due to the higher than average levels of mental illness, cognitive impairment, poor education and reduced literacy levels within the prison population, making it amongst the most disadvantaged in the community. Also, Foundation researchers had interviewed homeless people and people with mental illness for previous reports, and found many had experience of incarceration.

"People enter the criminal justice system with disadvantages, which are then further compounded by the social isolation and exclusion of the prison experience itself. While criminal law issues are pressing when inmates are first incarcerated, civil and family law issues quickly emerge, particularly amongst a group which often relies on informal arrangements to look after its affairs. This causes problems post-release, with some prisoners facing escalating debt through unresolved fines and court costs, as well as outstanding housing and other family issues," says Mr Mulherin.

"This severely affects their ability to put their prison experience behind them, and move on to restoring their own and their families' lives outside."

The research identified opportunities for prisoners to access legal information, advice and assistance, while acknowledging that the very nature of the prison environment often compromises access to, and availability of, resources including contact with lawyers. This leads to a high level of dependency on others to complete certain tasks, which can result in delays and at times lost opportunities to address outstanding legal problems.

Media enquiries and/or a copy of the report: Grainne Murphy 02 8227 3203 or 0427 564 973