Rapist wins human rights claim

By John Aston,Press Association
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:56

A convicted rapist has won a High Court test case ruling that his human rights were breached by the long delay in the Parole Board reviewing the lawfulness of his continued detention.

A senior judge said a shortage of panels to hear cases had denied Samuel Betteridge, 55, the right to a speedy hearing.

The ruling is important because of a crisis in the parole system since the introduction of IPPs - indeterminate sentences to protect the public from dangerous offenders.

The Parole Board has been swamped with hundreds of applications for release in IPP cases, leading to a backlog and scores of human rights challenges and claims for damages.

About 70 other High Court claims were awaiting the outcome of the Betteridge case.

But Mr Justice Collins said the Government was taking steps to remedy the situation, and proceeding with the claims would be "inappropriate", unless there were "very special circumstances".

He ruled that Betteridge's right to a speedy hearing under Article 5(4) of the European Convention on Human Rights had been breached.

But he was not entitled to damages because the evidence showed he was not fit for release in any event.

He said other prisoners in similar circumstances to Betteridge were also unlikely to receive any damages, and their applications would only add to legal costs and create "a thoroughly unsatisfactory state of affairs".

The judge said it was widely recognised, including in a House of Lords ruling, that "a mess" had been created by the Government's failure to prepare properly for the increased number of parole hearings following the introduction of IPPs.

But steps were now being taken to remedy the situation.

The judge said in his ruling: "In the light of what is being done, it is not now appropriate for any prisoner to take proceedings against the Parole Board alleging breaches of Article 5(4) unless there are very special circumstances".

IPPs, introduced under the 2003 Criminal Justice Act, are aimed at persons who commit offences of a violent or sexual nature and are deemed to be dangerous to the public.

Convicted offenders remain in custody until considered safe to be released.

But the minimum terms prisoners must serve before they become entitled to be considered for parole are often relatively short. This has led to the Parole Board being swamped with applications for release.

Following Mr Justice Collins' ruling, Human rights lawyers say that damages claims may still be brought in cases where prisoners could show - unlike Betteridge - that they had a genuine chance of obtaining parole, but delays in reviews had denied them early release.

Betteridge was convicted at Lincoln Crown Court in September 2005 and sentenced to life for two rapes, with a five-year minimum prison term before being considered for parole.

He received a concurrent five-year sentence for attempted rape.

His sentence was reduced on appeal to imprisonment for public protection with a minimum term of three years, less time spent on remand.

The minimum term expired last December, but he is not expected to get a parole hearing now before September this year at the earliest.

Hugh Southey, appearing for Betteridge, told the judge that he had been told in April there were over 600 similar cases waiting to be listed for parole board hearings.

Mr Southey said: "This case highlights very clearly that a very substantial number of cases has been delayed significantly because of lack of resources.

"That is clear from the Parole Board's evidence. The problem should not have arisen. The problems with IPPs should have been foreseeable."

Steven Kovats, appearing for Justice Secretary Jack Straw, said important steps had been taken to improve the situation.

These included amendments to the law last July to reduce the number of IPPs, particularly those with short tariffs.

Better use was also being made of resources, and rule amendments meant there was greater scope for hearings being conducted by a single member, instead of a panel, and for hearings to take place without a member of the judiciary.

Mr Kovats also submitted there was now greater scope for not having oral hearings.

Since April this year, the "generic parole process" had also provided greater transparency, coherence and accountability.