Press access to parole board system will enhance public scrutiny

Posted on: November 30, 2020 by Claire Meadows

Granting victims and the press greater access to the parole board system will greatly enhance public scrutiny and confidence in the justice system, the Society of Editors (SoE) has said.

Responding to the Ministry of Justice’s Root and Branch Review of the Parole Board System, the Society said that the planned release of black cab rapist John Worboys in 2018 had damaged public confidence in how parole decisions are made and that enhanced access would enable greater public understanding of how the system works.

The review, announced in October 2020, comes in the wake of a public outcry following the parole board’s original decision in 2018 that Worboys was safe to be freed. That decision was later overturned by the High Court.

The Society said: “As illustrated by the high-profile case of John Worboys in 2018, the closed-door nature of this historic system has resulted in a public perception of secrecy and a lack of transparency in how decisions around granting parole are made. The High Court’s decision to later overturn the decision of the board in the Worboys case, his subsequent additional convictions in 2019, the resignation of the board’s chair and the damning ruling by the High Court in respect of the parole board’s original decision, have all contributed to damaging public confidence in the parole process.”

Following the outrage over the Worboys case, a number of changes have already been made to the parole board system.  Boards are now obliged to publish the reasoning behind their decisions and grant victims the right to challenge release decisions on violent offenders.

The Society said that while changes in the wake of the Worboys case were to be welcomed, further reform was needed. The implementation of a similar system such as that seen in Canada – whereby victims and the press are able to apply to attend a parole board hearing – could work to similarly enhance scrutiny in England and Wales and reverse the public’s perception of the “secretive system”, the Society said.

It added: “The Society supports calls by Martin Jones, Chief Executive of the Parole Board, to increase the number of hearings held in public and we would support the introduction in England and Wales of a similar parole board system as is currently seen in Canada. This independent administrative tribunal permits any member of the public age 18 and older to apply to be an observer, including victims, their support persons, offender assistants, journalists and students. Enabling a similar system in the UK whereby journalists and victims could apply to attend specific hearings would greatly enhance transparency and public understanding of the parole system. 

“In conclusion, allowing victims, the press and the public more widely, enhanced access to the parole board process will allow greater scrutiny and confidence in the justice system. Such a move would not only be consistent with the principle of ‘open justice’ – an important foundation of the criminal justice system – but it would also go some way to reversing the public’s perception of the parole system as a historically secretive and closed process.”

The Society’s response can be viewed in full here