John Worboys’ imminent release – should the Parole Board have a duty to disclose its reasons for release?

Written by Meg Gibson

“We believed he would be in jail for life.”1

This month, it was announced that John Worboys would be released from prison. These were the distraught words of just one of his victims; the black cab driver had been convicted of sexual assaults on twelve women. Despite this, nearly nine years after his conviction, it was announced that Worboys would be released from prison.

Under the Parole Board Rules, there currently exists a statutory provision preventing disclosure of reasons for release to the public. As a result, not all victims of Worboys’ assaults were informed of his proposed release. Moreover, victims were offered no explanation for why the Parole Board has made the decision to release him back into society.

In this article, I will analyse the case of John Worboys and use this to inform discussion as to whether the Parole Board should in fact have a duty to disclose such proceedings.

The background to the case

Worboys was convicted back in 2009 for drugging twelve women, sexually assaulting seven of them and raping one. As a black cab taxi driver in London, he used sedatives prescribed by his GP to subdue his victims, after deceived victims by pretending to be celebrating a lottery win with champagne. He has been linked to more than 100 sex crimes. He has served the minimum eight years’ sentence that was set by the trial judge, though his victims believed that he would be imprisoned for life as a result of his crimes.

As he was given an indeterminate sentence, it is up to the Parole Board to decide whether he would pose a risk to society if released after the minimum sentence has been served. One thing that is noteworthy: as Worboys is serving time in a high-security prison, it is very unusual for Worboys to simply be released without being moved to an open prison first. In September 2015, the Parole Board rejected his move to an open prison; yet in January 2018, it was announced that he was approved for release. This is extremely unusual.

Indeterminate sentences, where prisoners are unclear about how long they must serve beyond the minimum tariff, are no longer used. In November, Professor Nick Hardwick (Chair of the Parole Board) expressed a desire to release offenders who are still imprisoned under such indeterminate sentences.2 Whether this factor was taken into account by the Parole Board is unclear in this case, due to the lack of transparency.

Consequently, I will now consider what the reasoning is behind disclosure of proceedings currently being barred by statute and whether this should be changed.

 Why is disclosure of proceedings barred by statute and should this change?

It is the Parole Board who must decide whether a prisoner is still a risk; however, their decisions are kept hidden from public scrutiny. Victims may provide a statement that will be taken into consideration at the hearing, alongside assessments about their behaviour in prison, psychological state and the risk they may pose to society.

Under the Parole Board Rules 2016, section 25 concerns the disclosure of information:

25. Disclosure of information

(1) Information about proceedings under these Rules and the names of persons concerned in the proceedings must not be made public.

(2) A contravention of paragraph (1) is actionable as breach of statutory duty by any person who suffers loss or damage as a result.

As a result, the decision of the Parole Board will be kept private. Furthermore, the decisions of the Parole Board, as an independent body, are binding. The Government therefore has no legal power to overrule them.3

In response to the furore over the decision to release John Worboys, Professor Hardwick said:

“I recognise there is a lack transparency of Parole Board processes and I have recently set out options for change. We currently have a statutory duty under the Parole Board Rules that prevents disclosure of proceedings. We will shortly be launching a public consultation about how we share our decision making with the public.”4

The various “options for change” that Professor Hardwick has recently set out include having greater transparency in the parole process, along the lines of the Canadian model.

In Canada, the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (CCRA) requires the Parole Board of Canada (PBC) to maintain a registry of its decisions along with the reasons for those decisions. Anyone may request, in writing, a copy of these decisions.5 Victims can also attend a parole hearing as an observer and have a right to present a statement to the PBC at this hearing. This statement may include the continuing impact that the offence has had on them and any risk or safety concerns they feel the offender may still pose to society.6

So why do we not have a similar model in the United Kingdom?

There seems to be little justification for the model currently in place in the UK and there is certainly no publicly-given justifications from the Parole Board itself. It is high time to have increased transparency and a shift towards a model closer towards the Canadian system, but we must question when and if that transparency will ever come. 

This greater openness in the criminal justice system is necessary to ensure that victims feel able to come forward and are kept informed about their case. Furthermore, victims should be given a more active role in the decision-making process for parole, by being given an opportunity to come and attend the hearing and hear the discussions for themselves. Whilst there is a competing interest in protecting the privacy of the offender, this must be weighed up against the interests of the victims and society as a whole.

Arguably, giving access to reasons as to why the prisoner is being released will not adversely affect them; they can still be given adequate protections if they are released from prison. But for the victim and society as a whole, knowing why this person is being released back into the world can make a significant difference and could offer greater understanding and closure.The current approach of the Parole Board Rules currently denies them this

As for public consultation about how decision-making is shared with the public is on the horizon, serious considerations must be made as to how transparency can be increased. Allowing victims the opportunity to sit in on the decision-making process and to actively make oral statements would be a good first step to take.

 

  1. Laville, Sandra, ‘We believed he would be in jail for life’: the story behind John Worboys’ imminent – and baffling – release in The Guardian (23rd January 2018) available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/jan/23/john-worboys-release-black-cab-rapist-parole-board-jail-for-life
  2. Unknown, The Guardian view on John Worboys’ release: verdict on a system in crisis’ in The Guardian (5th January 2018), available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jan/05/the-guardian-view-on-john-worboys-release-verdict-on-a-system-in-crisis
  3. Unknown, How the Parole Board decided to release black cab rapist John Worboys, Sky News (5th January 2018), available at: https://news.sky.com/story/how-the-parole-board-decided-to-release-black-cab-rapist-john-worboys-11196219
  4. Parole Board, Parole Board statement in relation to the release decision of John Worboys (5th January 2018), available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/parole-board-chair-statement-in-relation-to-the-release-decision-of-john-worboys
  5. Government of Canada, Parole Board of Canada, available at: https://www.canada.ca/en/parole-board.html
  6. Government of Canada, Presenting a statement at a parole hearing, available at: https://www.canada.ca/en/parole-board/services/victims/participating-in-the-parole-process-as-a-victim/presenting-a-statement-at-a-parole-hearing.html