Everyone is entitled to justice, and to fair treatment before the law. This especially includes people in prison who are totally dependent on state control and the most vulnerable, subject to the harshest punishment available. However prisoners are often unable to exercise those legal rights, isolated from support, in cells without resources, but with time and incentive to defend themselves.
People in prisons must have the ability to access resources that assist preparing their defence, and exercising their right to a fair trial. This is why it is essential for people in prisons to have access to computers, as a tool to access evidence, a source of legal knowledge and the ability to present information to help themselves. That right is supported by many cases. The courts can adjourn and release to bail.
People in prison are often not able to access 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 would help combat some of these barriers. But even standalone computers with access to CDs and USBs are essential. In some states and for some people they are available, but not yet generally accepted as a legal right.
Mr. Tony Liristis’ case highlights the issues surrounding access to justice when someone is held in the NSW prison system. In particular, it demonstrates the breakdown of a fundamental principle within the rule of law: the right to a fair trial with sufficient resources to defend oneself.
Tony Liristis, 53, who has been defending himself, has been denied necessary access to a computer to examine police documents, research the law and present his defence. 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, resulting in him being diagnosed with PTSD.
Legal precedent establishes that access to a fair trial is a common law right. However, without proper access to computers and the law, prisoners cannot be involved their case, regularly correspond with legal representatives or advisors, 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 law in order to properly prepare for court hearings and defend himself against these charges.