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Why The Parole Board and Secrecy have no right to be Bedfellows

By Mark Leech.

Today The Times reports that Members of parole panels who decide to release prisoners should not be identified because of fears for their safety, the Parole Board has recommended to the government.

The Board has also opposed allowing the public into parole hearings and the release of details of the decision in full or a redacted form. Instead it wants a summary of the decisions to be made available on request, according to the board’s response to the justice ministry’s review of the processes.

How ridiculous is this yet one more example of Parole Board professional self-harm?

The High Court quashed the release decision in the Worboys case largely because the secrecy that surrounded it, enshrined in the now declared ultra vires Rule 25, offended against the common law principle of Open Justice – our criminal justice system consists of two distinct ends: one the Courts that send people to jail and, at the other, the Parole Board that in the case of serious offenders, releases them.

Both ends – and the full journey between them both – should be subject to exactly the same degree of public openness and transparency as each other.

If we name our Magistrates and Judges who send people to jail, what on earth is the point of concealing the names of Parole Board panel members who decide whether to release them or not?

This ridiculous drive for criminal justice secrecy is also to be seen within our prisons, among the 2000 or so Members of the rightly much-criticised ‘Independent Monitoring Boards’ (IMBs) – lay people appointed to statutory office by the Secretary of State for Justice to report on conditions inside our prisons and whose names the public are banned from knowing – a decision upheld by the Secretary of State for Justice in 2016.

This ban on IMB names being published comes despite the ludicrous fact that every single report from the Prisons Inspectorate names the IMB Chairman in the prison the Report refers to – and it ignores the fact too that when IMB members are at work inside our prisons, they all wear name badges.

Secrecy has no part in our criminal justice system, it still seems bizarre to me that in 2018 when a defendant appears in court all the public get to see on television are (admittedly good) charcoal drawings of the person on trial.

It is time for television cameras to be placed inside all courts, first instance and appeals – and yes inside Parole Board Hearings too; the public have a right to know who does what, in their name, inside the criminal justice system.

If a judge or magistrate can be named and held responsible for the sentences that they pass, why should Parole Board Members be treated any differently when they decide whether or not to release those from that sentence?

Parole Board Members have the right to go about their lawful professional duties in a safe environment but if they are subject to threats or abuse, then those are rightly matters for the police and the courts to deal with – but a fear of it cannot be used to draw defensive lines ousting the public’s right to know who makes decisions on their behalf, on what are purely subjective and defensive lines.

Mark Leech is the Editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales @prisonsorguk

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