Note: the original hard copy of this report is 360 pages .

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Taking justice into custody: the legal needs of prisoners   

, 2008 This report describes a study conducted by the Law and Justice Foundation of New South Wales (the Foundation) on the legal needs and access to justice of prisoners in New South Wales (NSW). This project is part of the Foundation`s broader program of research into the legal needs of economically and socially disadvantaged people, and their access to justice....


The purpose of the Law and Justice Foundation of New South Wales is to advance the fairness and equity of the justice system and to improve access to justice, especially for economically and socially disadvantaged people. In 2002 the Foundation commenced the Access to Justice and Legal Needs (A2JLN) research program, which aims to examine the ability of disadvantaged people to:
The main purpose of the program is to provide a rigorous and sustained assessment of the legal needs of the community, especially disadvantaged people, and their ability to access justice. This will provide evidence to assist government, community and other organisations to develop suitable policies and to plan service delivery. The research is a challenging program involving an interconnected set of projects, employing a range of qualitative and quantitative methodologies.

One important feature of the A2JLN research program is the examination of the particular access to justice issues and legal needs of selected disadvantaged groups. This qualitative study focuses on the legal needs of prisoners. Other groups examined as part of the program include older people, homeless people and people experiencing a mental illness. Prisoners were included in the A2JLN research program because of the concentration of disadvantage experienced by the prison population in terms of higher levels of mental illness, intellectual disability, histories of alcohol and other drug misuse, poverty, poor education, and unemployment. Prisoners were also included because there is available evidence that they experience a unique range of barriers in meeting their legal needs, there is a dearth of research on this topic, and prisoners are a group that have been so far 'missed' by our legal needs survey research.

While all prisoners face or have faced criminal law issues, this study also highlights the range of civil and family law problems that arise when people are often suddenly removed from their daily lives. These issues add to the legal problems accumulated in the chaotic period prior to custody (such as fines, debts, other criminal matters) and legal issues that are particular to inmates (such as parole and prison disciplinary matters).

This report also illuminates how the personal capacity of inmates, the systemic environment, the pathways to legal help and the prison culture all intersect to affect the capacity of prisoners to address their civil, family and criminal legal issues as they move through the incarceration process. It outlines the barriers caused by those factors, and highlights specific policy and service delivery implications for those working in the sector, to improve access to justice for people in prison.

Taking Justice into Custody is primarily based on consultations with legal and non-legal service providers, NSW Department of Corrective Services staff, serving inmates and people recently released from prison. It has also drawn upon existing literature and available statistics. While the report 'stands on its own', it is complemented by data collected in the other quantitative and qualitative components of the A2JLN program. The following reports in particular should be considered:

Geoff Mulherin
Law and Justice Foundation of New South Wales
June 2008