High Court Affirms Secretary of State's Discretion in Departing from Parole Board Recommendations in Oakley v Secretary of State for Justice

Citation: [2024] EWHC 292 (Admin)
Judgment on

Introduction

In the case of Karl Oakley v Secretary of State for Justice [2024] EWHC 292 (Admin), HIS HONOUR JUDGE KEYSER KC deliberated on the lawfulness of the Secretary of State’s decision to not accept the Parole Board’s recommendation to transfer the claimant, Mr. Karl Oakley, to open prison conditions. This matter raises important issues regarding the extent of the Secretary of State’s discretion when departing from Parole Board recommendations, particularly in the context of the claimant’s rights and public safety.

Key Facts

Mr. Oakley is serving a life sentence for manslaughter and has previously had a recommendation by the Parole Board to be transferred to open prison conditions rejected by the Secretary of State, a decision which was quashed upon judicial review for being inadequately reasoned. The Parole Board’s second recommendation for transfer was also declined by the Secretary of State, primarily on the grounds that further risk assessment work needed to be undertaken in closed conditions.

The primary issue at hand concerns the Secretary of State’s duty to give due consideration to the Parole Board’s recommendations while also maintaining the discretion to diverge from such advice. The case discusses the distinctions between factual findings and evaluative assessments made by the Parole Board, scrutinizing the degree of deference the Secretary of State must accord to each.

The judgment highlights several legal principles:

  1. The Secretary of State’s discretion: The Secretary of State is not bound by the Parole Board’s recommendations but must consider them seriously, giving them appropriate weight.
  2. Assessment of Risk: The Parole Board possesses institutional and procedural advantages in risk assessment related to a prisoner’s potential release or parole. This expertise garners the Board’s recommendations a significant, albeit not determinative, influence.
  3. Public Law principles: The Secretary of State’s decision must be rational and justifiable within public law norms. An unacceptable departure from the Parole Board’s recommendation could render the decision subject to judicial review.
  4. Continuum of assessment: Following the rationale in R (Hindawi) v Secretary of State for Justice [2011] EWHC 830 (QB) and subsequent cases, there is a continuum between findings of fact, which require ‘very good reasons’ to depart from, and evaluative judgments about public interest or risk assessment, where the Secretary of State has more latitude to disagree with the Parole Board, provided adequate justification is given.
  5. Inevitability Test: If a decision is found to be unlawful but it is determined that the decision would inevitably be the same on reconsideration, the court can withhold relief per the Senior Courts Act 1981.

Outcomes

Judge Keyser KC found that the Secretary of State was entitled to reject the Parole Board’s recommendation after determining that further risk assessment in the form of a Stalking Risk Profile was both necessary and available in closed conditions, contrary to the Parole Board’s views. The judge held that the Secretary of State’s decision was sufficiently reasoned and that the Secretary of State was not limited in consideration to the material that was before the Parole Board.

Conclusion

The High Court’s decision in Oakley v Secretary of State for Justice reaffirmed the Secretary of State’s discretion in matters of prisoner transfer and the context-sensitive approach to the review of administrative decisions. By underscoring the distinction between facts and evaluative assessments, the judgment delineates the boundaries within which the Secretary of State can legitimately exercise discretion. The outcome highlights the complex balance between prisoner rights, the expertise of the Parole Board, public safety, and the Secretary of State’s duties, all pivotal in shaping parole and prison transfer decisions in the UK.

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