Everyone is entitled to justice, and to fair treatment before the law. This includes people who are in prisons, however they are not always able to exercise these rights. People in prisons must have the ability to access resources that may assist in preparing their defence, and exercising their right to partake in a fair trial. This is why it is important for people in prisons to have access to computers, which are a source of legal knowledge and information.
People in prison are often not able to access as much face-to-face legal advice and representation as they require. Barriers include time restraints, restricted access to resources due to classification or physical segregation, and lack of knowledge on the legal system. In some cases, people in prison may choose not to consult with legal professionals due to lack of trust, unreliability and difficulty in communication.
Online legal services for people in prison could help combat some of these barriers.
Mr. Tony Liristis’ case highlights the issues surrounding access to justice in the NSW prison legal system. In particular, it demonstrates a failure of two fundamental principles within the rule of law: the right to a fair trial and open, public access to legal content.
Tony Liristis, 53, has been repeatedly denied rightful access to a computer, which is essential to his ability to properly represent himself in court. Furthermore, Mr. Liristis’ inability to prepare important case documents, due to this lack of computer access, has led to his court date being vacated twice, lengthening his stay in prison. In addition, this has had a detrimental impact on his health, demonstrated by Liristis being diagnosed with PTSD.
Legal precedent establishes that access to a trial is a common law right. However, without proper access to computers and the Internet, prisoners cannot follow the progression of their case, regularly correspond with legal representatives, review the evidence being held against them and prepare written submissions to the court. If prisons restrict the prisoner’s right to legal resources, they are essentially depriving them of their right to participate in their own trial.
On the 3rd of January 2017, Liristis wrote to Justice Action requesting our assistance in his plight to access a computer. Justice Action has written to the Commissioner of Corrective Services NSW two times, citing relevant legislation and legal principles to support Liristis’ right to access a computer (See Letter 1 and Letter 2). Justice Action compiled a thorough and persuasive paper regarding prisoners’ right to access legal resources. This pertained to a wide-faring judicial consideration of principles affirming the rule of law through civil access to justice, procedural fairness, the right to an adjournment and the right to be released on bail. The Commissioner’s response to Liristis’ request for an adequate computer and Internet access stated “CSNSW does not permit inmate access to the Internet.” The Commissioner said that he was satisfied that the computer given to Liristis was adequate for his needs.
Liristis has been given access to a computer for approximately two hours per day, although this computer does not work properly, and cannot open the necessary files for Mr Liristis to view all of his evidence, as the computer is almost 20 years old. He is only able to access his material via the Legal Portal system. Prison officers conduct the transfer of material, which compromises its security. Liristis has previously been forced to open his legal documents for perusal and inspection by officers, in clear contradiction of the Department’s Operations and Procedures Manual, which explicitly states that such material is legally privileged and not to be accessed by prison officers. On the 28th of March 2017, Justice Action responded to the Commissioner of Corrective Services NSW stating that Mr Liristis has been denied the ability to send emails to the court, and to sign out a USB stick, both of which greatly deprive him of his ability to exercise his right to legal defence. The Director of Corrections Executive Services and Complaints Management responded to Justice Action on the 7th of April 2017 and has refused to assist and address our concerns.
Liristis had his Bail Application on 6 April 2017 however it has been postponed to 27 April 2017. Justice Wilson commented that the reason for the Bail Application being postponed is because the prosecution was not ready. Liristis had still not been given access to police documents and expressed fustration at the prosecution in this regard.
Ultimately, Liristis desperately requires access to a working computer and the Internet in order to properly prepare for court hearings and defend himself against these charges.