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Victims’ Commissioner responds to consultation on making parole hearings open to victims

In her consultation response, Dame Vera Baird welcomes the initiative to consider how to make the parole process more open, while urging the Ministry of Justice to be mindful of the potential for traumatising victims.

The Ministry of Justice launched a ‘root-and-branch’ review of the parole system in England and Wales on 20 October 2020. This was with a view to building on recent reforms to improve the transparency of the Parole Board’s work.

The public consultation invited views on whether victims should be allowed to observe parole hearings and whether the media and wider public could have greater access to hearings, while also avoiding the risk of making it harder for the Parole Board to make the best decisions to protect the public.

At present, victims are entitled to read a statement about the impact of an offender’s crime but cannot attend the rest of the hearing because of the sensitive nature of what is discussed. It might be medical information about a prisoner but parole hearings also often hear graphic accounts of their crimes which might be distressing to victims and prisoners may be less forthcoming if hearings were held in public.

Responding to the public consultation, the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, Dame Vera Baird QC, said:

“I welcome this initiative to consider how to make the parole process more open. Victims should be viewed as participants of the criminal justice system, not mere bystanders and any increased transparency and greater sharing of information can help in restoring some of victims’ lost trust and confidence to the criminal justice system.

Whilst I am a strong advocate of open justice, I have expressed some caution in how far we can make this process completely open. We must always be mindful of the potential for traumatising victims, for example, by placing information that may be personal to them or very painful back into the public domain at repeated parole hearings. As such, I have argued it would be unwise and premature at this stage to make these hearings open to press and wider public, but restrict access to those victims who wish to observe the process.

I call for the review to also look at other opportunities for greater openness, including more information being shared with victims throughout the duration of the offender’s sentence, more victims being encouraged to participate in the Victim Contact Scheme and a review of the Parole Board’s high-level summaries of parole decisions to see whether there is scope to share more information with those who do not wish to attend the hearing.

Great strides have been made by the Parole Board and Ministry of Justice in opening up the parole process and I congratulate them on this. But there remains much more we can do.”

See the full consultation response.