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It’s a sad fact of life in and after lockdown that everything is a bit rubbish. We have called groups of friends a few times to chat via Zoom. It’s nice to see everyone but the conversation doesn’t flow. You can’t pick up the cues to detect who wants to speak next and if everyone talks at once you can’t hear anything. Zoom quizzes are fun, but, for the same reasons, they lack the banter of a real pub quiz and are therefore focussed and functional. A couple of times we have sat down as a family to watch streamed theatre performances. They were very good but it’s not the same as a night at the theatre and, without the atmosphere of a live performance, you might as well watch a TV drama which has been written for the medium through which it is presented. Things which were once simple are now complicated – you need an appointment to go to the tip for heaven’s sake! And while Peter Crouch: Save Our Summer is quite amusing, it is no substitute for the live international football that the Euros were promising.
On 23rd March 2020, the Parole Board made the decision to postpone all face to face hearings with immediate effect. The decision was inevitable – prisons had closed their gates to visitors and it was no longer possible for members and witnesses to travel the country for hearings. A couple of weeks of frenzied activity followed as cases were reviewed. Some were deferred, some were decided on the papers, others were converted to telephone or video hearings. Since then, I have participated in 20 remote Parole hearings, all conducted by Skype / telephone. So, has the Parole process, like so many other things, become a bit rubbish?
The simple answer to that is, surprisingly, no. Remote technology has been available to the Parole Board since I was appointed ten years ago. A new “Parole Hub” had just been established and its virtues were extolled at my initial training. The idea was that the panel would convene in a suite in London while the prisoner and witnesses would join via video link. It was to be the future. In reality, hub hearings never took off in the way that was hoped. While the Parole Hub has been running continuously, only a few prisons have the necessary technology. Most cases were considered too complex to risk making a decision without seeing the prisoner. Any suggestions of learning difficulties, mental health problems, serious or unusual offending meant that cases were deemed unsuitable to be heard remotely. Despite expressing a willingness to conduct hub hearings, I have only done two in ten years.
All that changed on 23rd March. If we had deferred every “complex” case, we would have a massive backlog by now. Instead, after the initial confusion of the first couple of weeks, the Parole system has adjusted. We are now hearing just as many cases as we would have expected in normal times and the backlog is reducing rather than increasing. Telephone hearings are by no means perfect. Sometimes the line crackles and you have to ask people to repeat themselves. Sometimes participants disappear altogether. In one of my hearings, the chair vanished for 10 minutes but after a few frantic e-mails he was able to re-join. Sometimes witnesses don’t pick up the non-verbal cues that they have answered the question and ramble on for longer than they may otherwise. As a result, remote hearings tend to take slightly longer than face to face hearings.
But there are advantages too. In my experience, telephone hearings start on time – everyone logs on when they are supposed to, no one gets stuck in traffic. From a personal point of view, I can wear what I like, I can get up and stretch, I can drink coffee and eat snacks during the hearing, all without looking unprofessional. Hearings may take a little longer but I don’t have a long drive home afterwards, so they are less tiring. If one of my hearings is cancelled, it is relatively easy to find another one to take its place because I’m no longer restricted by geography – I can pick up a vacancy anywhere in the country. And remote hearings cost the tax payer a lot less in travel expenses and hotel costs. As long as solicitors are able to consult with their clients by telephone prior to hearings, they are able to represent their interests effectively. Several of my remote hearings have involved vulnerable prisoners, with learning difficulties, mental health problems, physical health problems and dementia. Prior to 23rd March, none of these would have been considered for remote hearings but in most cases, despite these challenges, the prisoners were able to participate just as effectively as they would have been in face to face hearings.
The crucial issue, however, is whether the quality of our decisions is affected by our new way of working. That remains to be seen. We will have to wait for the statistics to see whether we are more risk averse and reluctant to release from remote hearings. Time will tell whether serious further offences by prisoners on Parole increase. In theory, the fact that we don’t know what the prisoners we are dealing with look like, may help to reduce unconscious bias and make our decisions fairer. It is very difficult to tell whether someone is lying to you, whether you can see them or not. Not being able to see the “whites of their eyes” is unlikely to make much difference to whether or not we are fooled by prisoners who present themselves well but have made little genuine change to the risk they present.
So remote Parole hearings are probably here to stay. While face to face hearings will return for the most complex and vulnerable prisoners, the majority will continue on the telephone or video link. COVID-19 has forced technological change on the Board in a way that the Parole Hub did not. This may be a good thing or it may not – we will have to wait and see.