Where the Commissioner who has been dealing with the prisoner's case decides that the case should be considered by a panel of Commissioners a guidance document will be provided to the prisoner which will set out the process to be followed.
The prisoner will receive a Notice of Hearing letter which will set out the next steps in the process and will advise him/her of the date, time and location of the hearing. He/she will receive a copy of the decision referring their case to a panel or a copy of the decision granting a hearing where the prisoner has met the criteria specified in the Parole Commissioner’s policy in regard to requesting a hearing when he/she have had a decision not to release. An oral hearing will be held unless the panel and the parties agree that such a hearing is not necessary.
If the prisoner wants to call any witnesses at the hearing he/she must also make a written application to the Commissioners within the specified time period setting out the name, address and occupation of those witnesses and a full statement of the evidence that they are to give. The prisoner can, if they wish, use form PCNI 4 which can be found in the forms section of the prisoner guide.
The Offender Recall Unit must also submit a written application containing the same things to the Commissioners at this time in respect of any witnesses they want to have at the hearing and they must send a copy of this to the prisoner.
The prisoner may also apply to the Commissioners, in writing, to be accompanied at the hearing by, for example, a family member, a friend, or a minister of religion. The application must include the reason why he/she wants this person to be there and include their name, address and occupation. If the prisoner wishes, he/she can use the same form as for witnesses. The Offender Recall Unit also has a right to apply for people not directly involved to be present at the hearing.
The chairman of the panel will decide whether or not to grant these applications within one week and will give reasons in writing for the decision if any application is refused. The prisoner and their representative must ensure that the witnesses who he/she wants to give evidence at the hearing are available on the date of the hearing. They should, if possible, be available for the whole day. It is the responsibility of those calling witnesses to arrange for their attendance.
If the prisoner has any further documentation that they wish to have considered by the panel, he/she must submit an application, in writing, to the Commissioners’ office in good time for the hearing. The chairman of the panel will decide whether this information can be submitted.
If the prisoner or their representative wish to make any submissions on any point of law at the hearing, he/she or their representative should notify the Commissioners’ office, in writing, at least one week from the date of the hearing.
The notification should include a summary of the point(s) of law to be raised and should also include a list of any legal precedents, upon which the prisoner or his/her representative proposes to rely, together with their citation. If possible, photocopies of such precedents should accompany the notification and, in any event, a sufficient number of photocopies of precedents must be available at the hearing for use by the panel and the representative of the Offender Recall Unit. The prisoner should speak to their solicitor for advice on these matters.
Failure to comply with these requirements may result in the hearing of the prisoner's case being delayed or adjourned.
Where will the hearing be held?
The hearing will be held in a designated room in the prison that you are in unless the panel chairman and the parties agree otherwise.
Record of hearing
The prisoner should note that all hearings are recorded. Although the panel may grant permission for notes to be taken by the parties, the information about the proceedings or the names of any persons concerned must not be made public.
A room will be available for the prisoner and their representative and any witnesses to be called on his/her behalf to consult in. A separate room will be available for the ORU’s representative and his witnesses. When the hearing is ready to begin, the prisoner will be escorted into the hearing room.
The panel is made up of three Commissioners. The chairman is usually a lawyer and one of the other members is normally a psychiatrist or psychologist. The function of the panel is to consider the prisoner's suitability for release. Each of the panel members is entitled to an equal voice on questions of law, procedure and substance. The panel will try to keep the proceedings as informal as possible.
- The Secretary is a member of the Commissioners’ Secretariat and is responsible for administrative duties during the hearing. The Secretary will also operate the recording equipment.
- The Offender Recall Unit (acting on behalf of the Department of Justice) is normally represented by a solicitor from the Departmental Solicitor’s Office.
- The Prisoner's Representative is the person he/she has chosen to represent them at the hearing.
Please note that although there will be lawyer(s) present as far as possible the hearing will be held in a way that is easily understood by all parties using ordinary language.
- Witnesses are people called by either the prisoner or the ORU to give evidence at the hearing. In keeping with the informality of the hearing, witnesses are not required to give evidence on oath.
- Observers are people granted permission by the chairman of the panel to attend the hearing but do not have an active part in the process. These could include other Commissioners, but only the panel members will play a role in the discussions of the panel during and after the hearing.
The Layout of the Room
The members of the panel will sit facing the prisoner, their representative and the ORU’s representative. The Secretary will sit to one side of the panel and the witnesses will sit on the opposite side while giving evidence. Besides the prisoner and his/her representative and whoever is representing the ORU, and unless the chairman of the panel directs otherwise, only expert and professionally qualified witnesses or public servants who are there to give evidence can expect to be present during the entire hearing.
The Purpose of the Oral Hearing
The panel’s task is to consider the prisoner's suitability for release. The hearing lets the panel examine all the relevant information in depth, including the prisoner's views and the views of the ORU. From time to time the chairman of the panel or panel members may raise particular issues in which they are interested or ask the prisoner questions. The prisoner should do his/her best to answer them.
Where the ORU makes any allegation of fact against the prisoner which you dispute it will be up to the ORU to prove, on the balance of probabilities, that that fact is true.
Please note that if the prisoner is to be released the panel must be satisfied that it is no longer necessary for the protection of the public that he/she stay in prison.
Confidentiality of the Oral Hearing
The hearing will be held in private and those present must not subsequently make public any information about the proceedings or the names of any of those taking part.
The Order of Proceedings
It is important to remember that the panel has discretion as to how the hearing is conducted but the following guidance sets out what would normally be expected. The prisoner, his/her representative or the ORU’s representative may also make application to the panel during the hearing if they want to change the order of proceedings.
i) The panel will try to keep the proceedings as informal as possible. The chairman will direct his or her opening remarks to the prisoner, introduce all the participants and outline how the hearing will proceed. (The prisoner may be asked whether he/she objects to the presence of any of the observers and, if so, why).
ii) At the beginning of the hearing the chairman of the panel may indicate what the panel regards as the important issues in the case.
iii) The chairman may ask the ORU’s representative to give the ORU's view on what the outcome of the prisoner's case should be. The chairman may also ask the prisoner or his/her representative to state what decision and/or recommendation he/she will be asking the panel to make. This should be a short statement of fact.
iv) The chairman will then ask the ORU’s representative to call his or her witnesses. The witnesses will usually be asked questions in the following order by:
- a) the ORU’s representative;
- b) the prisoner or their representative;
- c) each panel member in turn.
The chairman may, however, decide that panel members may ask questions before the witness is questioned by the ORU’s representative or the prisoner or their representative. If so, this will be intended to focus the questioning on what the panel regards as the important issues in the prisoner's case.
v) Once all the ORU's witnesses have been heard, the prisoner or his/her representative will be asked to call their witnesses. This time, the order in which the witnesses will be asked questions will be as follows by:
- a) the prisoner's representative;
- b) the ORU’s representative;
- c) each panel member in turn.
vi) You will have an opportunity to speak on your own behalf if you wish. You may be asked questions by your own representative, the ORU’s representative and by members of the panel. It is important that you try to answer all questions put to you, including those from the panel.
vii) Once all the evidence has been heard, the chairman may ask the ORU’s representative to make a closing statement.
viii) You or your representative will be asked to make a closing statement.
ix) Finally, the chairman will explain that when the panel reaches its decision it will be sent in writing to you within seven days, unless the chairman has extended the time. A copy of the decision will also be sent to your representative, and to the ORU.