Pilot scheme paves way for victims’ right to attend Parole Board hearings

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Victims could attend full Parole Board hearings for criminals hoping to be freed from jail for the first time as early as next month.

A pilot to test the plans hopes to see victims observe at least 12 case reviews from June or July, providing sufficient support is available for those taking part.

The move paves the way for the system to be opened up to all victims as part of efforts to remove the secrecy surrounding the parole process.

Parole hearings – which assess whether offenders such as those serving life sentences are fit for release – are typically held in private and often inside prisons, with victims and observers such as reporters being given limited access in rare circumstances.

At present victims can ask to read a statement in person but are not allowed to hear the rest of the evidence presented.

The Government previously said they would be given the right to attend parole hearings in full for the first time after a pledge was made in the Conservative Party’s 2019 manifesto.

The Parole Board, which has welcomed moves to make its work more transparent, will also be required to take into account submissions made by victims and they will be allowed to ask questions.

A board spokesman said: “The Parole Board is working with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and the victim contact scheme to progress plans to enable victims to observe parole hearings where that is their wish.

“It is vital that there are clear rights and proper support for victims when they choose to be involved in the process.

“Therefore it is important that there is a testing period in which victims who wish to observe a parole hearing in full can do so. This will ensure that any issues can be identified and fixed before the process is fully rolled out.”

Last year the MoJ signalled an end to the blanket ban on open proceedings as it announced the public would be able to attend some Parole Board reviews.

But concerns around the sensitive nature of what is discussed – including offenders’ medical information, the sometimes graphic nature of their crimes and the potential impact on any victim’s privacy – could mean that “most” hearings may still take place in private, the government department said at the time.

Victims’ needs will be “at the heart of these plans”, the Parole Board spokesman said, adding: “We are determined that any changes are right for them. Open justice is wholeheartedly welcome but retraumatising victims is not an option.”

The board is also working with the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales to ensure the plans have the “caution and sensitivity” required.

“It is crucial the necessary resources are in place to give victims the support they deserve when involved in observing a hearing,” the spokesman added.

Victim contact scheme liaison officers will put forward cases to be considered for the pilot out of the victims they work with through the support network.

Ultimately victims will be allowed to observe the entire hearing through a remote video link and given the option to decide if there are certain details – such as an offender’s sexual motivations and habits – which they do not wish to hear.

Some information, for example the address where an offender will live after being released, may still be withheld.

The Parole Board is also keen to progress plans for open hearings – which would allow the press to attend and report on proceedings – as soon as possible but a pilot to test the plans is also needed first.

The chairman of the Parole Board would have the final say on whether a hearing can proceed in public, with representatives including the prisoner and the justice secretary entitled to ask for it to be held behind closed doors.