The Ministry of Justice recently announced its plans to relax its Rule on holding parole hearings in private. The change will end a decades-long ban on public hearings when introduced later this year, as we increasingly shine the light of transparency on a system that was previously secret.
In its statement, the Government makes clear that it is anticipated the vast majority of hearings will continue to be held in private due to the extensive legal, ethical and victims’ issues involved in parole cases. However, the Board absolutely welcomes any steps to improve openness and transparency around the system and can see a measured, considered and staged route to making certain hearings open, if it is in the interests of justice.
The decision follows a public consultation launched in October, as part of the wider Root and Branch Review of the parole system, which found broad support for the move. We welcome the Government’s intention to make parole hearings more accessible to victims and members of the press. Ultimately, our aim is to increase transparency of the parole system and ensure a fair and effective hearing for all involved.
The Board must now carefully consider the impact of more open hearings on victims and prisoners in each case and as such is developing a pilot scheme to determine the best possible way of delivering this. We cannot allow transparency to cause further harm to victims or set back the progress that a prisoner has made in custody. Provided there are appropriate safeguards so as not to disrupt the proceedings, the Board would welcome a staged approach to opening up hearings.
We absolutely agree with the Victims’ Commissioner that steps should be taken to prevent re-traumatisation of victims and this will remain a key consideration going forward. Victims are at the heart of the criminal justice system and it is of paramount importance that their situation is taken into account when considering such a change to the parole process. We also think there is a real opportunity to work with the media to make parole hearings more open to the public and will be working hard to find a way of increasing media access in a way that increases public understanding and transparency.
It is also the case that the Parole Board is likely to require new powers to increase transparency and open up hearings. These would include the ability to direct a public hearing, hold certain sensitive elements of hearings in private, manage attendance at hearings by allowing people to observe or removing people if necessary and the ability to place reporting restrictions on certain elements of a case.
Under the new system, anyone would be able to request that a hearing be heard in public. The Chair of the Parole Board will then decide whether an open hearing would be “in the interests of justice”. Because of the sensitive nature of what is discussed, including offenders’ medical information, and the need to sometimes discuss in detail distressing aspects of their index offences as well as the need to protect victims’ privacy, it is expected that most hearings would not meet this test.
At its core, the Parole Board’s primary objective is public protection and to risk assess the most dangerous offenders in society to decide if it is necessary for the protection of the public that they remain in prison. This means that Parole Board members must examine and closely question prisoners and witnesses at great length when making such critical decisions.
A move to greater transparency should not be allowed to mute that questioning. Our strong record on public protection demonstrates that to make the best decisions we need to ask difficult questions and for those giving evidence to be as open and honest as possible to inform our decisions.