Back to top
Article

Get out of jail?

18 July 11

Keen to encourage legal representation of prisoners at its hearings, the Parole Board for Scotland offers some guidance for solicitors who may not be familiar with how it operates

by Sandy Cameron

For many solicitors, the end of their involvement with a client convicted of a criminal charge will be at the time of sentence, or after an appeal has been heard and refused. Particularly in circumstances where the client receives a long-term sentence (over four years) or a life sentence, that may be considered to be the end of the matter by the solicitor. However, there is a further “court-like body” that will consider the client’s case while s/he is serving the sentence.

The Parole Board for Scotland has responsibility for deciding whether prisoners can be released into the community, either at the halfway point of their sentence (over four years), or after the punishment part of their life sentence has been served.

The work of the Parole Board looks at some of the most important issues for society. What happens to offenders after they are sentenced? How do we as a society treat those who offend? What supervision and support should be available for an offender released on licence? How should the risk that an offender presents be managed, and are there those whose risk of harm will always be too high?

Often prisoners have communication difficulties and need good representation to be able to present a case to the tribunal. It is an important part of the criminal justice system and one that should not be forgotten.

Voices to be heard

Life sentence prisoner tribunal hearings take place in the prison where the prisoner is held. The Board has responsibility for the protection of the public, and members of the Board sitting on the tribunal will consider evidence which is presented to establish that the risk that the prisoner poses has reduced to a level where it is considered manageable in the community.

The hearing is less formal than a court hearing, there are no strict evidential rules, and the procedure is flexible to accommodate the different participants, some of whom will not be legally qualified. Tribunal hearings generally begin at 10am at the prison, and punctuality of all parties is expected by tribunal members. Early attendance by the solicitor, allowing time to have a discussion with the prisoner before the hearing starts, helps ensure that s/he gets good representation.

Often the prisoner’s dossier of papers will be considerable, and the tribunal will expect the solicitor to be familiar with the papers. Prisoners will have been anticipating their hearing for some time, and many are very anxious by the time the tribunal is listed. There may be last minute information about the prisoner’s conduct in prison which has to be discussed before the hearing starts.

It is important that the prisoner feels s/he can participate in the hearing. What s/he has to say will be part of the evidence that the tribunal takes into account. The protection of the public is the first and main consideration for the tribunal, together with issues of the fairness of the process. Progress through the prison system and rehabilitation are not relevant, other than where they suggest that the risk that the prisoner presents has changed positively or negatively. The management of the prisoner during his sentence is not an issue over which the Board has control.

These are important hearings for all prisoners. Their liberty is at issue, and good representation can assist those who may be disadvantaged or inarticulate to present their case.

Recall hearings

Extended sentence prisoner tribunals and lifer recall tribunals consider the position of a prisoner who has been recalled to custody following release. The tribunal can take account of all the circumstances of the recall, including any further criminal convictions. It must make a decision for the protection of the public, assessing the risk of serious harm. If the prisoner is not successful at the hearing it will be at least a year before the case is considered again. The circumstances of the recall may appear to the prisoner to be unimportant or trivial, and good representation can be important to ensure that s/he is able to put forward the best case for release.

Some ground rules

To avoid unnecessary delay and the risk of postponement, which can have a considerable cost to the public purse (the cost of a tribunal which is postponed late in the day is around £1,000 for the Parole Board alone), the following suggestions are made for agents planning to appear at a tribunal.

  • 1. Try to see your client as far in advance as possible to begin preparation.
  • 2. Get to know the relevant prison staff such as the parole clerk, the lifer liaison officer and the early release liaison officer – they can be a source of valuable information for you.
  • 3. Get legal aid – if necessary get authority for any specialist reports such as psychology or psychiatry.
  • 4. Know the Parole Board for Scotland Rules.
  • 5. Be familiar with the prisoner’s dossier and have it marked for ease of reference – the tribunal members will.
  • 6. Arrive at the prison in plenty of time – do not keep the tribunal waiting. There may be late information on the day which you will want to consider with your client before the start of the tribunal. If you are unavoidably held up on the way to the prison, phone the prison and ask them to make sure they inform the tribunal.
  • 7. Make sure you are going to the right prison. This can and does sometimes change at short notice.
  • 8. Focus on what the basis of the tribunal’s decision has to be about, i.e. risk.
  • 9. Remember that the Parole Board does not manage the sentence or prisoner progression, but may give advice to Scottish ministers.
  • 10. Listen to what the chair has to say about the procedure to be followed.
  • 11. Your opening submission should be very brief, i.e. a simple statement of what your client is seeking at this tribunal.
  • 12. When invited to ask questions of Scottish ministers, do just that rather than make a speech. Your opportunity for that will come later.
  • 13. Ascertain beforehand whether your client is willing to answer questions. The tribunal will almost certainly prefer to put some questions directly to her/him.
  • 14. Please try to keep it brief and to the point.

Raising awareness

These words of advice will certainly be teaching granny to suck eggs for many of you, but they are based on regular experiences for Parole Board members sitting on tribunals and are intended to be helpful to all, particularly those who are not yet familiar with the ways of working of the Parole Board for Scotland.

Much of what is covered here will be included in a DVD which is currently in production, aimed specifically at prisoners who are coming up for their tribunal date. Among other things it will encourage them to seek legal representation and to make contact with their solicitor at the earliest possible date. It will be available on the Parole Board for Scotland website – www.scottishparoleboard.gov.uk – and it is hoped that it will be of particular interest to solicitors preparing their clients for a tribunal.

 

Professor Sandy Cameron is chairman of the Parole Board for Scotland

Become a member?

The Parole Board for Scotland requires a substantial number of legally qualified members and regularly advertises for applications. These are dealt with under the public appointments system. Experience shows that getting through the appointments process can be quite challenging, therefore here is some further advice which may be helpful if you are considering applying.

The first hurdle is the application form. Do not simply list what you have done, but give examples which will demonstrate that you have the sought competence: for example, say, here is an example of how I dealt with a matter.

Keep it succinct and make sure you answer all the questions. The selection process is based on competence, so this is very important if you are to make it to the interview stage.

At interview be prepared to give examples, preferably different from the ones you used in your application.

If you are asked to give a presentation for a set time, ensure that you can deliver it in that time.

Bear in mind that the interviewers will be interested in your capacity to work with people from a range of disciplines.

These pointers may help you to become a member of the Parole Board for Scotland – something which all of our members find rewarding, challenging and enjoyable.

Have your say