13:26, March 29 308 0 theguardian.com

2018-03-29 13:26:16
The Worboys case and fears for the criminal justice system

I find myself acutely disappointed having listened to justice secretary David Gauke’s statement on the Worboys fiasco (Parole Board chief forced to quit after court quashes move to free Worboys, 29 March); and while he may enjoy the “full confidence” of the prime minister, I dare say the same cannot be said for the public. Britain’s justice system is the best in the world but far from perfect, and rather than adopting an elitist and paternalistic attitude, we need to demonstrate humility and understand that public confidence in our system of justice is key to its effectiveness and sustainability.

As a minister in the justice department, I was told by decent and sincere civil servants that I should not challenge X or I should allow Y; after all that is their job. But I was clear my role was to weigh their advice and act on my conscience, so if I vehemently disagreed, I did what allowed me to sleep well at night. For example, when it was recommended that I downgrade the security category of a prisoner and increase his privileges – and that if I did not do so, we would lose the case in the high court and incur costs along with the consequent negative publicity – I point-blank refused. The prisoner was in my view a profoundly wicked person (a child murderer) whose vile crimes did not warrant privileges, and ultimately my faith in Britain’s courts was vindicated (despite the apparent odds).

On occasion, maintaining the faith requires backbone and the strength of conviction to challenge convention – in this instance, the justice secretary has behaved like a civil servant when a politician was required.

Shahid Malik

Former Dewsbury MP and justice minister

As an independent member of the Parole Board, appointed under Nick Hardwick’s chairmanship, I am disappointed and angry that he has been forced to resign. On his watch the board cleared the long-standing backlog: dealing with 25,000 cases and holding over 7,000 oral hearings in 2017 while at the same time keeping the rate of serious further offending at less than 1%. Throughout his time in post, Mr Hardwick worked tirelessly to increase understanding of the board’s work and pushed for greater transparency. He championed increased engagement with victims. He was a powerful advocate for a truly independent Parole Board and we need that now more than ever.

Victoria Scott

London

The mistakes in this case were made at the beginning when the police and CPS failed to prosecute more cases they knew were viable. To try to sort this out by changing how the end process of parole works is bound to be partial at best. And the proposal which would allow the police and/or CPS to spring on the Parole Board untested and unproven allegations against the prisoner, which they have known about since the sentence started but have chosen not to put before a court, would surely breach natural justice.

Mary Pimm and Nik Wood

London

As much as on the particular facts the high court was right to force the Parole Board to rethink its decision to release John Worboys, it remains the case that it may well have unintended consequences for other serving prisoners. The Worboys decision stood out as going against the grain of the board’s general reluctance to move lifers and “dangerous” offenders to open conditions, and the decision to release him without testing in open conditions was almost unprecedented. The board’s culture of caution, particularly in relation to prisoners “in denial” – fighting miscarriages of justice – will likely harden if it feels that judicial scrutiny of its decisions to release are as open to challenge as its decisions to refuse to do so.

Moreover, the direction that the board should take into account “offences for which he had not been convicted” ought to trouble us, however loathsome Worboys’ own crimes were. All that’s required is a now-inevitable police briefing to the press at the end of a trial that an offender is “strongly suspected” of other offences, and any parole application in the future will be forced to try to prove prisoners no longer pose a risk in relation to offences for which they have never even been convicted. We can only hope the “exceptional features” of Worboys’ case are recognised and do not haunt the workings of the Parole Board more generally.

Nick Moss

London

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