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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

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

Updating victim liaison work post-Worboys

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HMI Probation finds high levels of commitment but a slightly creaky and out-of-date victim liaison system. Should police or probation be responsible for victim liaison?

Results of Worboys investigation

The decision to release serial rapist John Worboys on parole and related media coverage has resulted in unprecedented focus on the parole system and kickstarted a review into whether, and to what extent, parole decisions should become transparent.

The fact that some victims learnt of Mr Worboys’ proposed release via the media has generated extensive debate and last week, on the same day (7 February 2018) that two of John Worboys’ victims were granted the right to a judicial review of the parole board’s decision, Dame Glenys Stacey, Chief Inspector of Probation published the results of an investigation into the policy and process followed by the victim contact scheme in the case of John Worboys specifically requested by Justice Secretary David Gauke.

Investigation remit

The focus of the review was on the contact made by the National Probation Service (‘NPS’) with women who were victims of John Worboys and who fall within the scope of the Victim Contact Scheme. The review considered whether the requirements of the scheme were met in all respects, specifically whether relevant and timely information was provided to the victims following sentence, and whether they were given the opportunity to contribute their views in anticipation of the Parole Board’s consideration of John Worboys’ application for release.

Findings

The inspectors found that the NPS “by and large” complied with the Probation Instructions that were relevant at the time. After sentence, the twelve victims who fell under the statutory scheme were all contacted at the right time, and given the opportunity to opt-in to the scheme. Only four chose to do so, and over time contact was lost with one of these women. Two other women could have been accepted onto the scheme on a discretionary basis, should they have made initial contact themselves with those administering the scheme. They did not. 

For most of the period of John Worboys’ detention, the women who had opted-in to the scheme were sent letters annually and in accordance with the scheme, to inform them of developments. It appears, however, that contact lapsed in 2010 for no clear reason, before being resumed in 2012. The quality of correspondence was poor. Some letters contained errors in victims’ names and addresses, and the messages were not conveyed clearly. This was particularly significant at the time when the women had the opportunity to contribute their views to the parole hearing.

Prior to the hearing, the NPS took the unusual step of attempting to contact the women who had not opted-in to the scheme. This was a well-intentioned action, not required by the scheme, and designed to alert the women to the parole hearing and the possibility of release. Unfortunately, however, there was not enough time before the hearing for women to receive the letters, absorb the information and respond. What is more, the style and content of the letters lacked clarity and urgency. One woman who had engaged with the scheme from the start did make a Victim Personal Statement to the Parole Board. Others who the inspectors interviewed were adamant that they would have wanted to do so, had they had the opportunity.

By the time of the parole hearing, five women were in contact with the Victim Contact Scheme. The NPS took prompt action to notify each of the decision to release John Worboys. Notification was by letter, email or telephone call, depending on preferences expressed by victims much earlier. 

Inevitably, they each received the news at different times, and regrettably the news broke in the press before some had received and read the notification. Those women not in contact with the scheme – the majority – learnt of the decision through the media. All who spoke to the inspectors described their shock and distress. They had not felt prepared for this outcome.

Implications

Just as the decision to release John Worboys has prompted a review into whether parole decisions should be more transparent, the HMI Probation investigation unearthed a number of broader issues which the inspectors break down into six sections:

1: Initial contact with victims

This is a problematic issue. On the one hand, not all victims want to opt-in to the VCS. After a protracted and traumatic court case, it is understandable that some may wish to forget the whole event. A letter from a victim liaison officer may not be welcomed, and may not be seen as holding future significance.  Approaching victims relatively soon after the court hearing makes good sense, to provide information quickly and ensure the notification system is properly set up in accordance with victims’ wishes. However, victims may not yet have fully thought through how they feel. They will not know how they will feel in the future, nor how much information they wish to receive. Talking about an offender’s potential release at the beginning of their sentence is unlikely to be what any victim of a serious offence wishes to hear.

 It is not clear how best to initiate the victim liaison process in the future.

2: Continuing contact

The report recommends that The wider review should consider whether and how the VCS can always be sure it can contact victims who have opted-in, and that those victims are contacted in the ways they wish. Important and urgent information should be conveyed promptly and in ways that make sure the victim knows. 

3: Communication about the parole process

 The inspectors note that the speed of modern communication through social media has introduced a new dimension to the already complex processes for informing all the relevant parties about a parole hearing and decision. They suggest that as first principles, those personally affected should have the opportunity to prepare themselves for whatever decision the Parole Board subsequently make. They should be informed promptly and sensitively of the decision made, and be told in clear and understandable terms what any decision to release will mean in practice. In release cases, they should be told and given the chance to absorb the information before it is generally released.

4: The Victim Contact Scheme

 Nationally, 40,000 victims are managed by the VCS, with 4,000 in London. VLOs are not qualified probation officers, by and large. Many have high caseloads and all are managing emotionally demanding work. 

Despite high levels of commitment, inspectors note that the quality of work needs to improve. Letters are sometimes badly written. They do not always address the victim correctly. They can be sent to unverified or wrong addresses. They can fail to convey the necessary information or convey it in ways that are not readily understood. Victims find these shortcomings discourteous at best, and often upsetting. These common failings can also jeopardise their anonymity.

The inspectors recommend better training and a mandatory qualification in victim work.

5: Roles and responsibilities

In addition to the reforms suggested in the previous point, the inspectors question where victim liaison work should be located:

It was notable that the women we spoke to were, by and large, confused about the range of agencies involved with victims. For several, their police contact had been the most obvious potential source of information, and they turned there for advice when the case made press headlines. Parole board decisions are particularly important to victims, whether or not they have opted-in to the scheme. Yet under the current arrangements, the NPS retains responsibility for liaison with opt-in victims. No one is responsible for approaching victims who have opted-out but who may now want to participate in relation to a parole hearing.

 6: Non-statutory victims

The report also recommends that the ongoing review considers policy and practice in relation to victims who fall outside the statutory remit of the Victim Contact Scheme, of which there were several in the Worboys case.

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