The limits of legality

Does a decision to release on parole a prisoner serving a determinate sentence have to be made judicially? Is the judicial nature of the original sentencing process sufficient to carry forward to make acceptable an executive decision to refuse parole?

Not every legal system permits the executive to have input on the parole decision. It is not the sort of decision into which there can be legitimate political input: Lord Rodger and Lord Carswell in R(Black) v Secretary of State for Justice [2009] UKHL 1 (21 January 2009), at 50 and 58.

In this case the Secretary refused to accept the advice of the Parole Board and declined – pursuant to s 35 Criminal Justice Act 1991[UK] – to order the release of Mr Black on parole. Lord Brown at 65 placed this provision in its historical context.

Having had his application for judicial review of the Secretary’s decision declined, Mr Black appealed to the Court of Appeal, which held that s 35 was incompatible with art 5(4) of the ECHR which provides:

“Everyone who is deprived of his liberty by arrest or detention shall be entitled to take proceedings by which the lawfulness of his detention shall be decided speedily by a court and his release ordered if the detention is not lawful.”

As Lord Brown recognised at 59, several recent decisions of the Court of Appeal held that such parole decisions should be made judicially.

Mr Black’s plan, of course, is to obtain a ruling of incompatibility so that the UK legislature will be encouraged to reform the law by removing the Secretary’s role in the decision process. Surprisingly, Mr Black will now have to seek that ruling from the Strasbourg court, because the Law Lords allowed the Secretary’s appeal in this case.

They did so by a majority of 4 to 1, Lord Phillips dissenting and Lord Carswell hesitatingly agreeing (58) with the majority.

Lord Carswell thought it significant that ECtHR jurisprudence had not extended to the point in issue here, although dicta on analogous points (cases of indeterminate sentences from Belgium and Norway, and cases on recall of paroled prisoners from Lithuania and the UK) recognised the significance of the term of imprisonment having been set judicially at sentencing.

Lord Brown reasoned that the risk that an executive decision would be arbitrary was addressed by the availability of judicial review in domestic law. Determinate sentences do not engage art 5(4), whereas indeterminate sentences do, and if there is to be any fusion that is a matter for the ECtHR to decide (81, 83).

Lord Rodger agreed with Lord Brown. He found that the cases established that, for determinate sentences, the original sentencing process satisfied the prisoner’s right to have the lawfulness of his detention decided by a court. Domestic review proceedings could be taken to check the lawfulness of the Secretary’s refusal to order release. Even if that refusal was unlawful, the remedy was for the Secretary to reconsider the question and decide it lawfully (48).

Baroness Hale agreed with both Lord Rodger and Lord Brown, without giving separate reasons.

Lord Phillips, dissenting, declined to regard the lawfulness of the detention of a prisoner on a determinate sentence as having been determined at the sentencing, where there was subsequently an opportunity for release on parole (4). At that point the legality of the continued detention was a justiciable issue. He found there was “no great leap of reasoning” required to apply to determinate sentences the Strasbourg approach to indeterminate sentences (10), and his analysis of House of Lords dicta supported that conclusion.

It is difficult to see what useful role the Secretary could have in this decision structure. Given that his decision is subject to judicial review, it must be a reasonable decision. The criteria for release will usually focus on whether the offender poses any risk to the community or to the safety of any person. If the Secretary has any information on that he should pass it to the Parole Board. The Board is required to make reasonable decisions, although its function is not judicial.

There are other occasions where thinly-disguised political input is permitted on decisions on the release of potentially dangerous people. See, for example, Criminal Procedure (Mentally Impaired Persons) Act 2003[NZ], s 33(3).

Well, art 5(4) does not say that the lawfulness of detention can only be checked once. But on the other hand, there is a difference between the lawfulness of detention and the appropriateness of detention. If legislation provides that a prisoner shall be released on parole unless certain facts exist (a risk to society, etc), then it is arguable that the lawfulness of continued detention is amenable to judicial scrutiny. But if legislation provides that a prisoner may be released on parole if he satisfies the Board that no such facts exist, then it is arguable that his continued detention is lawful and there is no occasion to scrutinise its legality. In the present case, the legislation distinguished between a duty to release certain prisoners, and a power to release others. Mr Black was in the latter group. On this basis the majority decision may be correct. The anomaly remains: a long-term determinate sentence prisoner may come to be considered for parole after serving the same time as an indeterminate sentence prisoner. Why should they be in different positions concerning who decides on their release? And why should the prisoner who, years ago, merited an indeterminate sentence, be in a better position as far as access to a judicial determination is concerned?

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