Currently, all parole hearings are held in private – this is set out in legislation in the Parole Board Rules. Following a consultation exercise, the government has now committed to opening up the hearings and allowing public access. Legislative change is expected in the next few months.
The government has stated that:
‘…we are persuaded that the current blanket ban in legislation on public hearings is unnecessary, and that victims, offenders, the media or the wider public should have the right to make a request for a public hearing, and to have that request considered.’
A “virtual” attendance, primarily through video link, is likely to be the preferred option in most cases where an open hearing is agreed. This has the advantage of minimising the risk of disruption, increasing capacity and allowing victims to easily step away if they become distressed or would rather not hear certain details of the case discussed.
New legislation will allow the Parole Board to consider an application for access mirroring the approach taken at the First-tier Tribunal (Mental Health), so that the Parole Board consider the “interests of justice” when making such a decision.
As the independent decision-making body, it will be for the Parole Board to decide the criteria for the interests of justice test it will use to determine applications for public hearings.
These will in due course be reflected in guidance the Board will produce on how it intends to approach applications. The types of factors the Board may wish to consider may include but not be limited to:
- If it would assist public understanding of how the decision is reached in a case of particular public interest;
- The participants in the hearings – in particular the prisoner and the victim (where there is one) – do not object to the hearing being heard in public;
- To hold a public hearing would not create an unacceptable risk (of mental or physical harm) to any of the participants;
- Whether the Board consider that the integrity of the evidence may be compromised and prevent a true and accurate assessment of the prisoner’s risk being provided by the witnesses;
- The presence of strong and valid objections from participants which could jeopardise their co-operation if the hearing were to be in public.
The Board will be able to consider an application for a public hearing submitted by anyone, but it would most frequently be victims, offenders, or the media.
The Parole Board will also be able to initiate the consideration process of its own volition if they see a need – for example, if there is significant public interest in a particular case.
Regardless of who has made the application, both the victim and the offender will be invited to submit their views before a decision is reached and the Board would take the final decision having taken account of the representations received. But ultimately the decision will depend on whether the Board is satisfied that it would be in the interests of justice to open up the hearing, having taken everything relating to the particular case into consideration.
Anyone who attends a hearing under these new provisions will be an observer to the proceedings in a similar way to attendance at court. They will not be entitled to intervene, ask questions of the witnesses or address the panel in any way – other than where a victim is presenting their Victim Personal Statement to the Board.
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You have been convicted of a crime you didn’t commit, your appeals are exhausted, and you serve time in prison. Part way through, you’re eligible for parole. So you hope finally to get out and put this behind you.
The parole board give you their decision, but parole is refused, seemingly because you refuse to accept your guilt. What can you do?
The Parole Board
The role of the Parole Board is to decide if it is safe to release a person. They mainly make decisions in relation to life prisoners, extended sentences, or offenders of particular concern such as terrorists or child sex offenders; they do not make a release decision about all prisoners. The decision to re-release someone who has previously breached their licence conditions is also down to the Parole Board.
They will consider one question: whether the prisoner is a serious risk to the public.
Those who are a serious risk will remain in prison. However, those who are not will be released on licence, serving the remainder of their sentence in the community under the watch of the Probation Service.
How does the Parole Board decide who to release?
To assess any risk to the public, the Board will consider many factors.
They may look at the circumstances that led to the offence being committed — such things as lifestyle, including any drug or alcohol use or abuse, relationships and acquaintances, living conditions and other factors. The Board will consider if those factors have changed.
They may also look at the circumstances the prisoner will be released into. For example, will they have a family network, a place to live, or a job? These things are likely to help the Board feel that any risks can be effectively managed outside of prison.
They will also look at a person’s record in prison. This includes their behaviour, their engagement with the opportunities in prison, and their relationship with their Offender Manager.
It is at this stage that problems can arise for people who deny they committed any offence.
Various programmes available to help offenders confront and manage their behaviour require them to accept guilt, because the programmes are built around gaining insight into the offence.
This can be an effective bar to those who deny their guilt from taking part in these schemes and disadvantage them in front of the Parole Board.
How do the Parole Board make their decisions?
The Parole system is complicated and it can take six months or more. The process begins with a ‘dossier’ of information being considered by a member. This stage is called the Member Case Assessment.
The case can then have one of four outcomes: the prisoner is released, transferred to an open prison, an oral hearing is directed, or the prisoner is refused parole.
An oral hearing is precisely that: a hearing that happens face to face. The Parole Board wants to hear evidence from the prisoner and other witnesses to find out more about the factors above.
An oral hearing can end in any of the other outcomes that the Member Case Assessment can.
What happens if I deny that I am guilty?
This can be tricky for a Parole Board because one of the ways in which they assess risk is looking at the insight a prisoner can demonstrate into their offending. When a person says they have done nothing wrong, it’s difficult to show any insight.
However, a denial of guilt is not, and should not be treated as an automatic bar to parole. This was made clear in the leading case of R (Owen Oyston) v The Parole Board  EWCA Crim 3552.
A denial of guilt can be taken into account when assessing risk. The court made it clear in Oyston that it was only one factor to take into account. The Parole Board should consider it in the context of all the evidence.
Do people who deny guilt face a disadvantage at parole hearings?
The court in the Oyston case set out the ways in which a person who maintains their innocence may be at an evidential deficit compared to those who accept they committed an offence.
Those who maintain they are innocent are unlikely to express any, or any real, remorse or contrition. They are unlikely to express sympathy for any victims, except that they may express general sympathy for them having been the victim of a crime.
Places on prison programmes designed to address the cause of the offending often require acceptance of guilt. Not going on those courses can harm your chance of release.
They may, in every other way, be a model prisoner, and they may show a willingness to engage in those programmes but be unable to by virtue of their denial of guilt.
As a result, the Parole Board may, in these cases, have a fear that they will have no motivation to obey the law in future. Prisoners who deny guilt can only undertake not to do what they maintain they have not already done.
What happens if I have been denied parole?
You can challenge decisions of the Parole Board by way of judicial review. This means asking a judge to review the decision. This is not a re-hearing and can only be used where the law has been wrongly applied, something has gone wrong in the procedure, or discretion has been exercised unreasonably.
How we can assist
If you need specialist advice, then get in touch with John Howey on 020 7388 1658 and let us help. We can advise on all aspects of your case.Read More