Transparency and Beyond – The Parole Board in the Public Eye
Members of the public will be able to request summaries of Parole Board decisions made after 22nd May 2018. Here is a quick guide:
1. Who is entitled to a summary of the decision?
A victim can request a summary of a Parole Board decision letter. A “victim” is defined as a person who is participating in the Victim Contact Scheme. They must make their request via a Victim Liaison Officer (VLO). There must be an active Parole Review at the time the request is made or the decision must have been made within the last 6 months.
Any other person can request disclosure of a summary of the reasons for a decision made by the Parole Board. The Parole Board has designed an online form for requests by members of the public. Any member of the public who requests a summary will have to demonstrate why it is in the public interest for the summary to be provided.
2. Who decides whether a decision should be disclosed and what will they take into account?
The new Parole Board Rules refer to the ‘Board Chair’ making this decision. ‘Board Chair’ usually refers to the Chair of the Parole Board (formerly Nick Hardwick, the current acting Chair is Caroline Corby). In this situation, it presumably means the ‘Panel Chair’ ie the chair of the particular panel of the Parole Board who made the decision.
If a victim requests a summary it will be disclosed unless the chair considers that there are exceptional circumstances why a summary should not be produced for disclosure.
If a member of the public requests a summary the Board must produce and disclose a summary to that person if the Board chair considers that the public interest in the principle of open justice justifies disclosure.
The Board has the discretion to refuse provision of a summary or redact details or amend as necessary a summary of a panel’s decision where the information contained could or does:
Adversely affect the successful rehabilitation or progress towards rehabilitation of any offender;
Place the safety of any person/s in jeopardy, through threats or other harmful behaviour;
Pertain to a young offender - under the age of 18;
Pertain to any offender released from a secure Mental Health Unit;
Breach any outstanding court orders;
Relate to any ongoing investigations or
Go against the public interest to disclose.
The Board states that it will not disclose information which breaches any persons’ rights as covered in Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), Data Protection Act (DPA) and General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
In order to assist the Parole Board in determining if any of the above criteria come into play, representations can be made by the prisoner, their representative or any interested party at the time of the making of the decision to allow or refuse release from custody.
3. What will happen if someone breaches any of the Parole Board Rules?
The new Parole Board Rules retain some restrictions on disclosure. Other than in the circumstances outlined above, information about proceedings under the Parole Board Rules must not be disclosed, except in so far as directed by the Board chair.
Other than those of “the parties”, the names of persons concerned in proceedings under these Rules must not be disclosed. There is no definition of “the parties” and presumably this refers only to the prisoner. The Secretary of State is never named and very rarely represented. His representatives are not named publicly. It does not appear that the names of Parole Board Members considering a case will be made public.
A breach of these Rules is “actionable as a breach of statutory duty” by any person who suffers loss or damage as a result.
I am not aware of anyone ever pursuing a successful action for breach of statutory duty. What is likely to happen, for example, if a victim were to publish online details which had been disclosed to them but were not otherwise in the public domain?
4. What will the Secretary of State and the Parole Board do to explain how and why the Parole Board makes its decisions?
The current Secretary of State has done nothing at all about this. The Parole Board is working very hard on this already. Lots of new guidance has been added to the Board’s website (or more accurately the GOV.UK website). There is a short animated film which has recently been published and a radio documentary which airs today on Radio 4.
Meanwhile, the Secretary of State’s department which still makes huge numbers of decisions regarding the release and recall of prisoners remain entirely PPCS hidden from the public view. They have no website, no information about what they do and why, no explanation of the training or expertise which its staff have to make decisions.
The Parole Board has struggled to manage the demands on it even before these very significant changes. They have finally been able to reduce the backlog of late cases to a reasonable level albeit the backlog has not been eliminated entirely. This has taken five years to achieve, during which time thousands of prisoners have had delayed hearings and the Parole Board has had to pay out millions of pounds in compensation for breaching their Article 5 rights.
They have to deliver between 700 and 800 oral hearings each month to hold this position. They will now have to deal with the administration and preparation of summaries of an unknown number of these oral hearings. This is not an insignificant task. It will take the time of staff at the Parole Board, staff in the Secretary of State’s department, the Probation Service and prisoners’ advocates. Parole Board members will have to prepare two sets of reasons in some cases as well as dealing with submissions made regarding summaries. Where the money is coming from to pay for this is anyone’s guess. There is no commitment to simplification and restructuring of the system to accommodate this and the other proposed changes floated by the Secretary of State (which are the subject of another consultation which will close in July).
There is a good chance that the impact assessment for these changes will prove to be woefully inadequate.