Prisons were locked down on the 23rd March 2020 and visits were stopped. This had huge implications for the parole process as parole board members, witnesses and legal representatives were no longer allowed in prisons. Fortunately the parole board was extremely pro-active, moving quickly in liaising with the Ministry of Justice and putting in place alternative ways of keeping hearings going and avoiding a backlog of inmates awaiting hearings and ultimately delaying release.
Whilst face to face hearings were cancelled from the 23rd March, the parole board put in place a system whereby the panel Chair reviewed each formerly listed case and issued directions on how best to progress the case. This included considering, if a conclusion to the review might be given fairly on the papers or whether the case should proceed to a remote hearing. This meant some hearings could continue taking place on the same date as they had been listed, even though their face to face hearing was cancelled, on the telephone remotely. I had a couple of April hearings re-scheduled but my May hearings have largely proceeded as normal but on the telephone and I understand the parole board have been trialing a way of securely conducting video link hearings. I await further information about that.
My experience has been positive, I have now done multiple remote hearings by way of the telephone. Whilst it is an intense process, requiring high levels of concentration, the hearing runs as if we were all in the same room. I wear noise cancelling headphones and put my phone on mute when a witness is giving evidence. This reduces outside noise and improves the sound quality for all parties. The prisons I have dealt with have been( in the main) helpful at arranging phone conferences to take place prior to the hearing, some will facilitate it days before the hearing and some facilitate them an hour before the hearing. Social distancing is taking place in prisons and I appreciate that staff have to bring the inmate over to the room where the inmate will phone in to the hearing and logistically this has been challenging. Prisons have in my experience stepped up to the challenge and have understood the importance of keeping the parole process moving, irrespective of the challenges.
The Parole board have also undertaken a project of reviewing all determinate recall cases which await listing. This involves a case review and directions being issued on how best to progress the case. The cases will either invite written representations from legal representatives and up to date reports from witnesses to see if the review can result in a direction for release on the papers or availability being asked to be provided from the witnesses and a remote hearing set up. This has involved 16 of my cases and means my clients might actually get hearings quicker than if they remained in the general listing process. Hopefully some might be released on the papers.
When we come out the other side of this I think we will conclude the Parole board and the Prison service did an outstanding job under extremely difficult circumstances.