Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Parole Board and victims

On 5th August, it was reported that Geraldine and Peter McGinty - parents of a murder victim - were upset to hear a judge at the Parole Board say that victim statements make no difference to the Board's decisions - BBC News 5th August.

In February this year, the Parole Board issued "Practice Guidance on Duties towards victims", paragraph 25.1.2 of which notes:

'The Parole Board ultimately makes decisions based on the offender’s current risk. In most cases, the
victim is unlikely to have information on this. However, the Victim Personal Statement (VPS) can contribute to a better, more informed hearing, as it may enable more open and robust questioning of the offender about the offence, addressing their offending behaviour, remorse and victim empathy, which are some of the many factors which will help the Parole Board to assess risk.' 

It is well established law that reasons

must be 'proper, adequate and intelligible' and, according to the Court of Appeal in R v Parole Board ex parte Oyston (2000) Independent 17th April, the reasons given must:

'... focus on the question of risk to which their decision is directed ... the Board should identify in broad terms the matters judged by the Board as pointing towards and against a continuing risk of offending and the Board’s reasons for striking the balance as it does. Needless to say the letter should summarise the considerations which have in fact led to the final decision ...'

Hence, where victims (or their families) have supplied statements, it seems clear enough that those statements should be considered and reasons issued by the Board ought to say something of the weight given to them. 

There is a Code of Practice for Victims of Crime issued in October 2013 and the Parole Board has issued a Victims and Families Practice Guide 2014.  The latter document sets out the approach the Board expects its members to take in relation to victim participation to ensure a consistent approach. The guidance reflects the Board’s undertaking to work in the spirit of the Code in order to give victims every opportunity to participate in our hearings, while maintaining our common law duty to provide fair hearings. 

The problem for victims is that they are not actually parties to the case. The Secretary of State is a party and it is via his representatives that victim statements are entered into evidence.  Laws on data protection and confidentiality mean that the victim will not be entitled to see the dossier or a copy of the panel's written reasons. The National Offender Management Service, via the Victim Liaison Officer (VLO) will be responsible for informing the victim of the outcome of the Parole Board hearing.   (See para. 3 here). 
Following the decision of the Supreme Court of the UK in Osborn v Parole Board [2013] UKSC 61, the Parole Board has been required to reassess its practice with regard to oral hearings which must now be held in a wider set of circumstances than previously.  On this see Ministry of Justice - Fair for the Future - Delivering on Osborn.  

The Osborn decision was interesting in that the court's decision was based essentially on common law requirements rather than being based merely on the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act 1998.  This aspect of the case is discussed by Richard A. Edwards on the UK Human Rights blog 13th October 2013.  

The Parole Board dates from 1968.  Today, it is established under section 239 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003.  It operates as an Executive Non-Departmental Public Body ('ENDPB'). The object of such status is to enable the body to perform administrative activities free from direct governmental control. An ENDPB must, however, have a sponsoring Department, which provides its funding and is concerned to ensure that there is justification for the funding provided and that this is used appropriately by the ENDPB.  It was because of this that the Court of Appeal criticised the lack of independence from the executive of the Board - see R (Brooke) v Parole Board and Secretary of State for Justice [2008] EWCA Civ 29

From July to November 2009, the government consulted on the future of the Parole Board and asked whether the Board should be transformed into a formal court or become a tribunal.   In October 2009, JUSTICE made a valuable contribution to the debate - Justice: A new parole system for England and Wales.  However, the government consultation did not result in any change to the Board's status despite responses indicating that a change along one of those lines was required - e.g. see Judiciary response.


Parole Board Hearings: Law and Practice 3rd Edition

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