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The Parole Board – Friend or Foe?

When offenders are sentenced to “Life Imprisonment” they are provided with a Tariff Expiry Date at their Sentencing Hearing. The Trial Judge is legally obliged to set a minimum term which a convicted offender must serve, before their release may even be considered.

When the “Lifer” reaches this minimums term, it is the Parole Board which must assess whether  he has reduced his risk enough so that he can be “managed” (released) into the community. This review process is ongoing, which essentially means the Lifer will not know the date of his release until the Parole Board has made a positive determination.

The Parole Board review process finishes with an Oral Hearing which is conducted by a quasi- judicial hearing. Analytically, at least, it forms part of the review process.  Prior to that, the Board will have been supplied with a Dossier which includes reports from bodies like the Probation Service and forensic experts like psychologists, as well as members of the prison staff. The Lifer is present at this hearing and may be legally represented.

Therefore these hearings are crucial to the Lifer’s future. His continued detention essentially rests upon the Board’s commitment to due process and a fair hearing. It would certainly be unlawful as well as morally wrong for the Board to, in effect, have made a decision prior to the Oral Hearing. Such a situation could be potentially devastating to a Lifer who has worked hard and attended several Behavioural courses to reduce their risk in an attempt to convince the Board that they should be released. One pertinent question in such circumstances might be “What’s the point?”

A recent case highlights the worrying fact that the Parole Board may be making decisions before the review process of the particular lifer has finished. On the 6th February 2012 a Parole Board Hearing sat at Shotts prison in Scotland to consider the release for Mr Malcolm Legget who has been in prison since 1986. The hearing was adjourned for 6 months in order for the Psychologist to attend as a witness.

On the 21st February 2012 the Parole Board wrote to Mr Legget saying that the Panel had made the decision not to release him as they considered him to be a [potential] risk in the community.

Mr Legget was understandably concerned and confused, at this development, as his hearing had been adjourned. How in those circumstances could the Board have made a final decision in relation to his possible release?  “What’s the point?” is the question that springs to mind!

Mr Legget then received a letter from the Parole Board informing him to disregard the first letter as it had been made in ‘error’. Mr Legget is convinced that the letter was sent as a result of a pre-prepared decision by the Board and the letter to him was sent in ‘error’ before the conclusion of his hearing.

If this suspicion is true then it highlights a serious, unlawful and morally wrong abuse of the Parole Board’s procedure and power. Could it really be that the Parole Board is “rubber-stamping” the continued imprisonment of life sentence prisoners, without observing a proper procedure? If so, then this would represent a clear breach of Human Rights legislation, as well as a situation where the Parole Board is operating on an unlawful basis.

Parole Board decisions may be judicially reviewed if the decisions are “unlawful” or “unreasonable”.


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