A reflection on the future of parole board hearings

July 16, 2020

By Alexandra Sutton

The Parole Board has been the subject of much public and political scrutiny in recent years, with the case of John Worboys capturing particular media attention in 2018. From an external perspective, the concept of “parole” and the way in which decisions are reached is riddled with misconception. Public discourse on parole is often wound up with debate about the length of sentences in general, confusion as to what license periods are, and the perennial question over whether “life should mean life.”

The Worboys case led to the resignation of Nick Hardwick, the Parole Board’s then chair, such was the level of criticism after a panel determined he was eligible for release. The decision was quashed in the High Court, and in a bid for improved transparency, it was determined that summaries of Parole Board decisions should be accessible to the public. In recent months, the Parole Board has once again hit the headlines following its decision to release Wendell Baker. Baker was given a life sentence in 2013 after he was convicted of the rape and assault of a 66-year-old woman at her home. The offence dated back to 1997 – the first trial resulted in a judge-directed acquittal, and Baker was ultimately convicted following a retrial in 2011. He denied the offence throughout, and maintained that denial following his conviction, raising questions as to why he was deemed eligible for release.

Parole Board Decisions

In order for an offender who is subject to a ‘life’ or extended determinate sentence to be released, the Parole Board must be satisfied that it is no longer necessary for the protection of the public that the relevant prisoner be confined.  For those subject to determinate sentences, this is often done on paper. However, for those subject to indeterminate sentences or IPP sentences, the issue is decided at a hearing. The make up of the panels can vary – retired Judges, current legal practitioners and trained members of the public, amongst others, can all sit on these cases. The panel is presented with a “dossier” comprising the facts of the original case, the offender’s history, and their progress in custody. They will hear evidence from an offender manager and an offender supervisor, and in some cases they may hear from a psychologist. Offenders can have the benefit of legal representation to present their case and make submissions on their behalf. The Parole Board deals with 25,000 cases per year, and on the face of it the question for them is at first blush a simple one: does this individual continue to represent a serious risk to the public? In order to answer this, the panel considers three themes: analysis of offending behaviour (the past); analysis of the evidence of change (the present); and analysis of the manageability of risk; (the future).

Victims and the Public Interest

For the public reading about parole cases, this, perhaps understandably, presents a conceptual difficulty. It is right that in order to assess future risk the panel must look at the offender’s past, but importantly, it is not for the panel to consider the merit of the original punishment. The poses particular problems when considering the views of the victims in these cases, and it is the purported failure to do so which has again led to criticism of the Parole Board in the Wendell Baker case.

Whilst the emphasis has always been on future risk in parole cases, victims do have the right to be heard. Victims or their families can provide a victim personal statement (as distinct from those provided during the sentencing exercise), and this can either be provided on paper or presented at the hearing. However, the exact impact of the victim personal statement has been itself queried. In 2014, a panel member had to apologise after a victim’s family members overheard his comments on the relative of such statements on the assessment of risk.

In the earlier John Worboys case, the decision was judicially reviewed – this was the first time a Parole Board decision had been challenged in this way. It was not in dispute that his victims had standing in the proceedings, and the legal fees were crowd-funded, evidencing the strength of the public interest in this matter. In addition to summaries being made available, the Ministry of Justice introduced a “reconsideration mechanism” whereby decisions can be challenged.

Years later in the case of Wendell Baker, it is the treatment of victims that has once again caused difficulties. According to the Parole Board victims have the right to give their views. In this case, the victim’s son only learned about the Parole Board decision after reading about it in the news. The Ministry of Justice commented that the unsuccessful efforts to trace the victim’s family were unacceptable and that the Victim’s Code should be updated, and the Justice Secretary Robert Buckland called for the decision to be reconsidered. That application was refused, and in line with the new policy, the reasoning was published. Retired High Court judge John Saunders observed that whilst “the respondent had committed a very serious offence which he continues to deny, the law is clear that such denial in itself does not mean that it was irrational to direct his release per se.” Unless a judicial review is invited, the decision of the Parole Board will stand.

The Future

It is clear that in light of the Worboys and Baker cases there is renewed public interest in parole hearings and augmented scrutiny of the Parole Board’s decisions. There is now increased emphasis on the need to balance the legal principles with open justice and transparency. In June, Charles Bronson, one of Britain’s most infamous prisoners, was granted permission to appeal the ban on parole hearings being held in public. Bronson has been in custody for 45 years, and argues that there is considerable public interest in understanding how his case will be decided. If the appeal is successful, it would signify a huge shift in the nature of parole hearing – arguably the culmination of the arguments that originated in Worboys. Equally, with the end of automatic halfway release for serious sexual and violent offenders earlier this year, it may be that there will be more offenders relying on the Parole Board to determine their release.  However, even with greater emphasis on transparency and victim’s rights, the assessment of future risk is still the test for the panel – the medium may change but the message remains the same.