JUSTICE responds to the Ministry of Justice’s public consultation on making some parole hearings open to victims of crime and the wider public, part of the government’s ‘root and branch review of the parole system”.
The consultation forms the Government’s first action on its “root and branch review” of the parole system, which seeks views on whether, and in what circumstances, it could be appropriate to allow the public, victims and/or the media to observe parole hearings. We welcome this overarching review, but we consider there to be more immediate and pressing issues to resolve regarding the parole system and the Parole Board before tackling the difficulties posed by opening hearings, particularly in opening them to the public.
Over the years, the secrecy of the parole process has prompted much debate around whether it should be made more transparent. Particular decisions to release parolees, namely John Warboys, have been subject to rebuke, with questions raised as to whether members of the Parole Board pay undue attention to the rights of prisoners at the expense of public protection.
In summary, JUSTICE recognises the call for greater transparency and firmly believes in the principle of open justice, which is a well-established tenet of the UK justice system and of our democratic values. It is a hallmark and a safeguard for the proper operation of the rule of law and the fair administration of justice. Open justice represents a cornerstone of our justice system and is reflected within many countries’ domestic legislation and in international conventions.
Notwithstanding, the principle is not absolute and must always be considered against the overarching aim of acting in the interests of justice and ensuring the fair administration of justice. We have serious reservations that the most appropriate way to improve transparency is through allowing public access to parole hearings. We hold the view that the multiplicity of issues and challenges public hearings pose could lead to unintended consequences, namely:
- unjustifiable interference with privacy rights;
- an increased risk of harm;
- inhibition of procedural fairness; and, ultimately,
- frustration of the Parole Board’s ability to properly carry out its overarching, and statutory, function of assessing a parolee’s risk of serious harm with a view to protecting the public – i.e. acting in the public interest.
In addition to those concerns are a barrage of practical, logistical and resource barriers which render the prospect of open hearings inappropriate, and unfeasible in the Parole Board’s current set up.
It is important to note that there have been a number of reforms introduced over recent years which serve to improve transparency and public confidence in the system, namely the reconsideration mechanism, decision summaries, and improvements in victim services and their ability to have their voice heard by the Parole Board.
Having said that, we consider that there is a case to be made for victims and the media to be given further access to parole hearings: to make the process more transparent and to build confidence and legitimacy in the Parole Board’s decisions. This should be done by application, with representations from the parolee and final decision taken by the Board. Any access should be from a public building (most likely a court or tribunal) via a video-link. Any wider public access would also require consent of both parolee and victim/victim’s family.