‘Limbs in the loch’ killer fails in legal bid to purchase personal prison laptop
A prisoner who challenged a decision to refuse his request for permission to purchase a personal laptop for his own use in jail has his case dismissed.
William Beggs, the so-called “limbs in the loch” murderer, claimed that the decision was “irrational” and breached his human rights, but a judge in the Court of Session rejected his legal challenge.
Lord Clark heard that the petitioner, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2001 with a punishment part of 20 years after being found guilty of the murder of18-year-old Barry Wallace in 1999, is incarcerated in HMP Edinburgh, having served earlier parts of his custodial term in Peterhead, Glenochil and Shotts.
He lodged a petition for judicial review against the Scottish Ministers, who are responsible for the actions of the Scottish Prison Service (SPS), seeking reduction of the decision of the deputy governor of HMP Edinburgh to refuse his request on the grounds that, firstly, the decision was irrational; secondly, that the SPS failed to take account of relevant factors; and, thirdly, that the decision infringed his rights under article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR).
Beggs, who has requested access to a laptop computer of his own on a number of occasions since around 2008 and indicated that he would meet the cost of purchasing the device, claimed that the use of a laptop was necessary for (i) correspondence in connection with a number of legal matters in which he is involved; (ii) management of documents in connection with those matters; and (iii) the continued pursuit of educational interests he has pursued during his period in prison.
In a previous petition for judicial review, the petitioner successfully challenged the refusal by the respondents to accede to his request for permission to purchase a laptop for his possession and use in prison.
Following upon Lord Malcolm’s decision, and having regard to the reasons for it, a meeting took place at the prison on 31 January 2017, attended by the petitioner and the deputy governor, and two others, the purpose of which was to afford the petitioner an opportunity to explain why he required access to a laptop and why the prison laptop loan scheme would not be an effective alternative.
On 12 May 2017, the deputy governor issued a decision letter refusing the request, in which it was stated that the reasons the petitioner had provided were “administratively convenient rather than vital” and that he had “not demonstrated sufficiently compelling circumstances to justify access to a personal laptop”, adding that there would be no way to “effectively monitor” his access to the computer.
Human rights breach
Counsel for the petitioner submitted that the respondents had given “insufficient weight” to a recommendations made by the Scottish Prisons Complaints Commissioner (SPCC) to the effects that the petitioner had the right to prepare responses to and instructions for his lawyers and that it appeared “reasonable” to permit him access to a word processing facility for the purpose of undertaking his legal work, with secure facilities for the storage of material on disc and use of a printer.
It was argued that the reliance placed by the respondents on the fact that the petitioner has been able to conduct litigation without access to a laptop was irrational because it gave “undue weight” to that fact, when seen in the context of the volume of correspondence conducted by the petitioner and the volume of material generated by his litigations over the years.
The respondents’ concerns about the effective monitoring of usage was a valid consideration but was presented as a “false comparison”.
Further, it was argued that the petitioner’s pursuit of educational interests had been “impeded” because of the unpredictable availability of facilities in the prison learning centre.
In relation to Article 8 ECHR, it was submitted that this was engaged because the decision complained of concerned the petitioner’s ability to manage his correspondence and the petitioner’s ability to engage in educational activity in the prison - both aspects of his private life within the ambit of Article 8, which were impeded by the respondents’ decision.
Challenge ‘not well-founded’
Refusing the petition, the judge held that the petitioner’s grounds of challenge to the decision to refuse his request were “not well-founded”.
In a written opinion, Lord Clark said: “It is no doubt the case that the petitioner would find it convenient to be able to own and use a personal laptop, as would some other prisoners. But the test I have to apply is not whether the petitioner would benefit, or whether it might be thought to be reasonable to allow such access; rather, it is whether the decision by the respondents to refuse access falls to be reduced on any of the grounds put forward by the petitioner.
“Viewed individually or cumulatively, the petitioner’s criticisms of the decision letter do not meet the high threshold for irrationality. For all of the reasons stated, I reject the contention on behalf of the petitioner that the decision not to allow him access to a personally owned laptop was irrational.”
He added: “As noted above, the factors which were said not to have been considered were the volume of material, including correspondence, which the petitioner possessed and the management of that material. I have already explained my views on these arguments and for the same reasons as given earlier I reject them. In short, I see no basis for concluding that these factors were not taken into account.”
In relation to the human rights argument, the judge held that the petitioner had failed to show that article 8 ECHR was engaged, and that even if it was engaged the need to maintain good order and security justified interference with the petitioner’s rights.
Lord Clarke said: “In the present case, the decision letter made reference to security and safety risks and gave various examples of such risks. The decision letter also referred to these risks applying not only to the prisoner who has access to the laptop but also to other prisoners who may come into contact with the device. The legitimate aim of any interference is therefore clear.
“As to proportionality, any interference has to be seen in the context of all of the other factors, including the existence of the prison laptop loan scheme and the fact that the petitioner has been able to engage in a number of litigations and to store both physical and electronic material. No specific incident of prejudice was identified by the petitioner… Accordingly, if article 8 is engaged, I consider that any interference in the petitioner’s article 8 rights pursued a legitimate aim and was proportionate.”
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