England: Restrictions on Privacy in Parole Hearings Loosened

(Mar. 15, 2021) On February 8, 2021, England’s government announced its intention to amend rule 15 of the Parole Board Rules 2019, which provide that, with limited exceptions, all parole hearings should be held in private, to provide transparency and confidence in the parole system. Changes to the rules will end what is effectively a ban on parole hearings being held in public and will enable any individual to request that a parole hearing be open to the public.

The proposed amendment would require the chair of the Parole Board to determine whether a public hearing is in the interests of justice. If a hearing is open to the public, any person present would be there solely in the capacity of an observer and would not be permitted to ask questions or otherwise intervene in the proceedings.

When determining whether holding an open hearing is in the interests of justice, the chair of the Parole Board must “balance the arguments made in favour of the public hearing by the applicant against the need to protect the privacy and wellbeing of the victim, the prisoner and the other participants.”

The government stated that while the blanket ban will be lifted, in practice it is likely that only a small number of hearings will be able to be held in public and that most hearings will continue to be conducted in private because they would not meet the balancing test due to “the sensitive nature of what is discussed, including offenders’ medical information and graphic accounts of their crimes, and the need to protect victims’ privacy.”

The government is currently determining what the rules governing the information that can be disclosed from these hearings will be. Factors that may be considered would be

  • 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.

Decisions by the chair of the Parole Board must include the reasons for the decision and can be subject to judicial review.

The current law permits observers in parole hearings, but the circumstances in which they are allowed are very limited, and the practice of the Parole Board has been to permit only observers who need “to observe for professional reasons, such as for training or policy development.”

The government stated

Our proposed amendments to the Rules will be an important legislative change that removes a potential barrier to the Board when considering whether observers, including victims, should attend a hearing. It will signal that—whilst safeguards must be in place to protect all parties—parole hearings are no longer required to always be private and can now be opened up.

The amendments will be introduced in secondary legislation later in the year, and the Parole Board will subsequently introduce guidance as to the procedure through which it will consider requests for open hearings.

The reforms are a result of the Root and Branch review into the parole service, and they are designed to counter the lack of transparency and confidence in the parole system “by showing the diligence with which the Parole Board performs its functions and revealing more information about how and why decisions are made.”

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