The Victims’ Commissioner (VC) and Chair of the Parole Board (Chair) had their introductory meeting. The VC welcomed the opportunity to work with the Board to improve the victim experience of the parole process.
Parole Board Transparency
The Chair explained that following a High Court judgment instigated by victims, the Secretary of State announced that Rule 25 of the Parole Board Rules (the privacy ruling) would be repealed. The practical effect of this decision was that for the first time, victims could apply to be given a high-level summary of the reasons for Parole Board’s decision.
The Chair advised that that over 2500 victims in the Victim Contact Scheme have registered to receive these high-level summaries and the uptake has been very high. Over 2,000 summaries have been issued to date.
When the new scheme had been in operation for 12 months, the Parole Board undertook a review of its impact. They were pleased to report that feedback from victims was generally very positive. The average time for issuing high-level summary letters was seven days from the date the decision was conveyed to the prisoner. The summaries offered a basis for victims being able to understand how the decision to release or not to release was taken.
The VC welcomed the findings and the high take up, and asked about the time available for victims between the date they receive the summaries and the deadline for issuing an application to challenge. The Board is committed to getting the summaries to victims as is practically possible.
Victim Contact Scheme
The VC and the chair discussed the Victim Contact Scheme. They acknowledged that not all victims opted into the scheme and this caused distress to those who failed to opt in and who discovered through third parties that the offender had been released. They both agreed the current requirement for victims having to opt into the Scheme was a concern.
They would like to see the Scheme offering greater flexibility. One example might be providing an on-line portal where victims could opt in or out at any time of their choosing.
Another option was to change the law where by victims are automatically included in the scheme unless they opt out.
The VC advised she had raised these issues with the Chief Probation Officer and was committed to exploring the matter further.
The new Reconsideration Mechanism was introduced in July. It enables both prisoners and victims to challenge Parole Board decisions. The scheme is still in its infancy to date there had been just 40 applications for reconsideration, of which five had been resulted in a re-consideration.
All reconsideration decisions are taken by a PB judge (17 judges had been trained). Once the decision is made, it will be published on the Parole Board website and the decision-maker will be named.
The Chair and the VC discussed accessibility of the mechanism for victims, particularly as they do not have access to legal advice. They acknowledged there was a high threshold for reviewing a decision and it was important this was being conveyed clearly and accurately to victims, so they understood what they needed to do to demonstrate a reconsideration was necessary.
The Chair advised most of the applications received to date had come from prisoners and that was to be expected. The Parole Board usually received around 300 pre-action letters each the year from prisoners. These letters were now being channelled into the reconsideration mechanism.
The Ministry of Justice announced a “Tailored Review” of the Parole Board in January 2019. The outcome of this review is not yet known and published findings were expected at the end of the year. The Chair and VC discussed possible outcomes.
The Chair advised the VC that around 150 victims attend Parole Board oral hearings every year to read their victim personal statement to the panel. The Board was committed to making hearings more accessible to victims. They recognised that entering a prison was challenging for victims and they want to be able to offer them alternative options such as a pre-record or a video link.
The Board continues to be committed to helping victims with their travel costs to and from hearings and this was at a cost of around £10,000 a year.
The VC welcomed these initiatives and the Parole Board invited her to attend and observe a hearing.
The Parole Board was committed to improving public understanding of its functions and the wider parole process. They were arranging meeting with MPs to explain the parole process and this was being well received.
The VC and the Chair acknowledged the government’s commitment to introduce new legislation to reinforce the requirement that release on parole be subject to offenders cooperating in helping the authorities to locate the body of the deceased.
Transparency in sentencing
The VC explained her commitment to bring about greater transparency in sentencing in order to assist the victim in understanding what the sentence meant in practice. Her commitment to transparency extended to the wider criminal justice process.
The VC and the Chair both agreed that this could be a positive development for parole. The VC will be requesting that victims of serious crime be given a free copy of the judges sentencing remarks. The VC acknowledged that these remarks were made available to victims participating in the parole process, but she wanted to see this happen at the point the offender was sentenced. She was also keen victims be informed of significant developments such as re-categorisation as this would help victims to understand the rehabilitation process.
Parole Board Video
In March, the Board launched a video, aimed at victims, and which explained the parole process. The previous VC took part in the video.
The VC welcomed this development and it was agreed that she would place it on her website to increase public awareness.
The Chair informed the VC the Parole Board would be participating in a four-part documentary series on the parole process. They would take great care to ensure that the needs of victims were taken into account. It was hoped this documentary would increase public understanding of the parole process.
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