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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Big changes to parole

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Victims will be able to request a release decision to be reconsidered in new parole system.

On Sunday this week (4 February 2019), Justice Secretary David Gauke announced “sweeping changes” to the parole system following a review of the Parole Board’s rules.

The review was initiated by Mr Gauke following the public concern over the planned release of John Worboys (known as the Black Cab rapist) which blew up just after Mr Gauke took up his post at Petty France in January 2018. Eventually, a Judicial Review upheld the application by some of Worboys’ victims which ruled that the Parole Board should reconsider his release. On reconsideration, with guidance from the court that information about additional offences with which Mr Worboys had never been charged should be considered, the Parole Board reversed their decision.

Via an MoJ press release, Mr Gaule announced three main outcomes from the review:

  • First ever standard practice documents will set out the Parole Board process to improve understanding and transparency
  • A judge-led process introduced later this year to allow potentially flawed decisions to be reconsidered
  • Victim Contact will be modernised with online opt-in and information sharing

He also announced a “Tailored Review” of the Parold Board to “consider if more fundamental reforms are necessary”.

Standard Practice

The new standard practice will clearly set out the approach and processes normally expected of panel members when conducting a hearing. This will include the type of evidence considered and how panels should assess wider allegations of offending, which may not have resulted in a conviction, and who is responsible for providing such evidence – issues that were at the heart of the John Worboys case.

Mr Gauke argued that making the decision process and approaches followed by the Parole Board more open and transparent will improve understanding of victims and the public, and give them greater confidence that the Parole Board relies on robust and thorough risk assessment procedures to inform its decisions as to whether to release prisoners who have completed their minimum term.

Following Worboys, the Parole Board was allowed for the first time to provide summaries of  its decision-making in individual cases, which it has so far done in over 800 cases. 

The reconsideration mechanism

For the first time, victims will be able to challenge a release decision if they believe it was fundamentally flawed. They will be able to make a case for the decision to be reconsidered without needing to resort to expensive and legally complex judicial review. This process will be available for decisions relating to all indeterminate sentence prisoners, including IPP and life sentences, as well as prisoners on Extended Determinate Sentences. We expect to introduce the process by this summer.

The first step in the process will be for a dedicated team within the Prisons and Probation Service to consider whether there is evidence or indications which support making an application for reconsideration. If that team concludes that there may have been a legal flaw or significant mistakes in the process used to reach a decision, they will put together a formal application to the Parole Board making the case for reconsideration.

Applications will be considered by a senior, judicial member of the Parole Board, who will be named, and will decide whether the case should be looked at again. If that judicial member agrees that the decision was flawed, they will direct how the case should be dealt with – either by putting it back to the original panel to reconsider the evidence, or by ordering an entirely new hearing by a fresh panel.

Victims will be guided by their dedicated Victim Liaison Officer to help them submit their case to have a parole decision reconsidered. The process has been designed to be as straightforward as possible, with electronic applications wherever possible and more simple paperwork. Once the Parole Board has notified its decision, there will be a period of 21 calendar days for a reconsideration application to be submitted. You can see the timeline of the process below.

Although the press release makes no mention of it, prisoners will also be able to apply for reconsideration of a decision not to release them.

Expanding victim contact services

The review also sets out how victim contact services are being extended to more people, including victims in cases where a serious charge lies on file but has not resulted in a conviction – as was the case for many of Worboys’ victims. It is also now easier for victims to opt-in and out of the service using a simple online application.

In September, the Government published the Victims Strategy to further strengthen victim communication and engagement, and we have rolled out new training for Victim Liaison Officers, with input from external services and agencies to increase understanding of the victim’s experience, and ensure they have the necessary information and skills to support victims.

Tailored Review for long-term reform

Alongside today’s publication, the Justice Secretary has also confirmed that he has launched a Tailored Review of the Parole Board which will consider what further changes over the longer term would benefit the parole process. There are no restrictions on the scope of this work, which will be wide-ranging and will report back by the summer before publishing its findings.

It will consider fundamental issues such as the purpose of the Parole Board, which functions it should deliver, its efficiency and effectiveness and its structure, including whether it should become a judge-led tribunal. This also includes assessing whether the Parole Board should receive additional powers and be monitored by an independent inspectorate.

Conclusion

The Parole Board has been intent on improving its transparency for some time and these changes allow it to do so. 

How many people – victims and prisoners – take up the opportunity to have parole decisions reconsidered, we shall have to wait and see. I assume that the number of decisions which are overturned will have a bearing on how many applications for reconsideration are made.

Of course, all this may be a temporary measure – one of the possible outcomes of the “Tailored Review” is that the legal footing of the Parole Board changes and it becomes a form of Court or Tribunal. 

[You can see the official guidance for a “Tailored Review” here. ]

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