Emphasis on transparency
Somewhat oddly, the MoJ chose this Saturday morning (28 April 2018) to publish the first stage of the review of Parole Board processes which Justice Secretary David Gauke ordered in January in the wake of the Worboys case. The findings of the urgent review have been published alongside a comprehensive package of reforms that include:
- Initial legislation removing the blanket prohibition of the disclosure of information about Parole Board proceedings, with a presumption that victims receive summaries of the reasons for Parole Board decisions,
- Proposals to, for the first time, allow Parole Board decisions to be challenged through a judge-led process that could in some circumstances be open to the public, and
- Immediate changes to expand the Victim Contact Scheme to include more people and to improve the way the department communicates with victims.
One immediate result of this work is the introduction of transparency to the parole process by amending Rule 25 to remove the blanket ban that prevents the Parole Board from disclosing information about its decision-making.
This change will also require the Parole Board to provide an overview of the arguments it heard in a case, the recommendations of expert witnesses, the offender’s progress and risk factors, the evidence provided by the offender and the reasons for the panel’s decision.
The removal of the ‘blanket ban’ and amending Rule 25 is an immediate first step on transparency which ensures compliance with the ruling of the Judicial Review of the Worboys case. But it is clear that the Justice Secretary intends to go further:
The department will carefully assess the impact this has on the Parole Board’s operation, on offenders, and on victims, including whether there are legal challenges, with a view to increasing transparency further, for example potentially automatically publishing summaries online.
Mr Gauke has also commissiond a comprehensive review of all the rules governing the parole board “to ensure that its procedures deliver justice.”
The MoJ has also committed itself to consider whether information about panel members and other details should in some situations be made public.
Increasing transparency was always a priority for the review (and an objective of the former Parole Board Chair Nick Hardwick, forced to resign by the Justice Secretary in the wake of the judicial review of the Worboys case) but the MoJ press release promises much wider reforms. These include a proposal for a new mechanism to force the Parole Board to reconsider a decision, ensuring that victims do not have to resort to Judicial Review to make the Parole Board look at a case again.
This change will be subject to a consultation launched today, but the MoJ’s initial plans are that the reconsideration would be led by a judge and oral hearings would be open to victims, media and the public. The terms of reference for this consultation are:
This consultation is aimed at those who have an interest in the decision making of the Parole Board for England and Wales. This paper considers and seeks views on the proposed parameters for and operation of the proposed reconsideration process, with respect to:
- which types of decisions should be reconsidered
- who should be able to apply for reconsideration of a decision
- on what basis a decision should be reconsidered
- how we can make the process transparent whilst also ensuring there are sufficient safeguards to protect panel members, victims and others
The Parole Board’s decision to release John Worboys also resulted in an “urgent need” to overhaul the process of providing information to victims (See HMI Probation’s investigation here).
As a result, numerous changes will be made to the Victim Contact Service (VCS) service, including extending it to victims of more types of offences, for example road traffic offences resulting in serious injury, and to victims in cases where a serious charge lies on file but has not resulted in a conviction.
Immediate improvements will also be made to the VCS, including new training for Victim Liaison Officers, better working with other agencies to ensure services are more joined up and making it easier for victims to opt in to the scheme at a later stage in the offender’s sentence.
At the same time, the department will explore the potential for changing the scheme so that victims are asked at the beginning to opt-out if they don’t want to be kept informed, rather than to opt-in if they do.
- If the intention is to prevent repetition of Worboys case then the implication is that the release rate should fall with the consequence that the prison population will rise.
- Deferrals and backlogs – the deferral rate is already up to 50% as panels seek more and more information. If the review mechanism is not properly resourced, backlogs will grow.
To make sure that any changes can be implemented quickly for future cases, this Review had been a rapid and focused piece of work.
Nevertheless, the speed of the process, which has been stimulated by political considerations created by public outrage over the Worboys decision, makes me think of two things:
- Firstly, that a parallel outcry led to the creation of Sentences of Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPPs), whose consequences the system is still trying to address.
- Secondly, the old aphorism: “hard cases make bad law.”