Barrister sacked by Parole Board over “catastrophic error”

Parole Board: Consensus that it was not in the public interest to release prisoner

A barrister has failed in a challenge to her removal from the Parole Board after she directed the release of a violent prisoner based on a mistaken understanding of the facts.

The chair of the Parole Board, Caroline Corby, described it as a “catastrophic error” when she referred Jacki Duff to a termination panel.

Mr Justice Kerr held that Ms Duff may have avoided her appointment being ended “if she had behaved differently once the error came to light”.

Ms Duff, a non-practising barrister, was appointed to the board in 2016 and became a panel chair three years later.

In December 2019, she directed the release of a prisoner who had been jailed in 2013 for domestic abuse.

She was under a misapprehension that he had been on licence and at liberty for over a year before being recalled earlier in the year, when he had actually been in custody in Scotland for ‘historic’ offences of domestic violence.

This came from relying on a cover sheet and not reading the full file properly.

The error was spotted the next day and “a consensus quickly formed that it was not in the public interest for [the prisoner] to be released”, Kerr J recounted.

“The claimant joined in that consensus when she realised the error, for which she did not accept responsibility.”

However, the Parole Board’s head of legal matters considered that Ms Duff was functus officio and could not reopen her decision. The error was too major to justify reopening it under the slip rule.

Ms Duff expressed her worries about the man’s release, writing one email “in a more shrill tone about ‘nightmares last night that woke me screaming’ which she then graphically described”.

She warned colleagues that, if the prisoner was released, “it is not my decision and the blood would be on your hands, not mine”.

She suggested that he should not be released even if that position were unlawful; “integrity would lead us to break the law and rescind this decision”.

He was not released, with Ms Corby saying Ms Duff’s decision should be treated as a nullity. The Parole Board took the unusual step of issuing a judicial review claim to quash it; it was resolved by a consent order.

Two months later, another panel chair directed the man’s release on more stringent licence conditions than those Ms Duff had recommended.

A panel was convened and recommended that Ms Duff’s membership of the board be terminated, holding that reliance on the cover sheet did not assist her as it did not deal with sentences not under the jurisdiction of the Parole Board, such as those imposed in Scotland.

Though “cautious” about recommending termination of membership based on a single error rather than a sustained course of conduct, it regarded this as a case of “gross negligence”; public protection was potentially compromised.

The then Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland, accepted the recommendation. Ms Duff argued before the court that this was unreasonable given that it arose from a single, isolated incident in which she was acting alone as a single-member panel and no, or no sufficient, consideration was given to alternative sanctions.

Kerr J held that the panel’s findings were “clear findings of misconduct” and rejected the argument that disciplinary action interfered with judicial independence.

“She did not misinterpret the facts or draw a wrong conclusion from them. She failed to ascertain what they were.”

The Lord Chancellor had taken into account a lengthy plea in mitigation that Ms Duff sent him, while the panel had considered a lesser sanction, the judge found.

Dismissing the claim, he said: “It is possible that the claimant might have avoided her appointment being terminated if she had behaved differently once the error came to light.

“She did not help her cause by seeking to deflect responsibility from herself and lay blame for the error at the door of others; nor by relying on the unrealistic suggestion that she was led into error by a mandatory policy of accepting at face value whatever was on the cover sheet, whether or not it was true and complete.”

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