Can I sue the probation service (or a Community Rehabilitation Company)?

Handcuffs imageAn individual is put on probation either because s/he has been serving a community sentence or because s/he has been released from prison on license or on parole.

The individual is then obliged to engage with the probation service for the entirety of the probation period, during which time they must:

  • attend regular meetings with an offender manager;
  • do  unpaid work;
  • complete an education or training course; and/ or
  • get treatment for addictions like drugs or alcohol.

Should the individual fail to comply with the terms set by probation, they are liable to be “breached” and obliged to return to Court. This might be because the individual did something that the sentence banned them from doing, committing another crime or missing appointments with their offender manager.Alternatively, the individual might be arrested and recalled to prison if they breach their license or parole conditions. The individual will then serve 14 or 28 days depending on the length of their original sentence and upon release will be put back on probation until the end of that sentence.

In 2014, the probation system was transformed with a £3.7 billion program of part-privatisation. The management of low and medium risk offenders was transferred to so-called Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs). Only the highest risk individuals were kept under public sector supervision.

But the Government’s privatisation program was dogged by controversy and criticism from the outset. I have previously blogged about concerns highlighted by the Chief Inspector of Probation in 2019. The criticism was such that shortly after, the Secretary of State announced that from December 2020, all offenders would be monitored by the National Probation Service again, thereby ending the role of the CRCs a mere 6 years after their much- vaunted inauguration.

In my last blog on this issue, I highlighted the case of Neil Rogers who by reason of Merseyside Community Rehabilitation Company’s incompetence, was wrongly recalled to prison to serve 28 days. As a result, he suffered not only loss of liberty but also psychological upset, and damage to his relationship with his family, and received an award of compensation to reflect his loss.

Sadly, this was not the only case of incompetence by the Merseyside Community Rehabilitation Company affecting one of my clients. This time, the victim of that Company’s incompetence, my client Tracey Williams (name changed), was not an individual on license and subject to recall to prison but rather someone who was reported for breach of probation and issued with a summons to attend Court.

Tracy was sentenced to 10 months in custody in late 2016. The sentence was suspended for two years and Tracey was to be supervised by Merseyside Rehabilitation Company for that time period.

Initially, the company was satisfied with Tracey’s level of engagement but in May 2018, her engagement allegedly dropped off, such that she was not meeting requirements. Merseyside CRC, conscious of their contractual obligations, believed that Tracey was in breach of the Court’s sentence and therefore reported her for that breach.

The Court processed the breach report and summoned Tracey to Court. Tracey failed to attend and a warrant for her arrest was issued.

Upon notification of the warrant, Merseyside Police then sought to arrest Tracey and in July 2018, attended her home address. Tracey was arrested in front of her partner and two children and then transported to a local police station where she was kept overnight to appear before the Court the next day.

At court and before Tracey appeared before the Magistrates, Tracey was told that there had been a “mistake” and she was immediately released, having spent some 15 hours in wrongful custody.

Upon investigation, I established that Merseyside Rehabilitation Company had failed to record Tracey’s change of address. Tracey had advised her offender manager in May 2017 of her move and she sent emails in October and November 2017 in which she clearly identified her new address.

However, her reported breach notification was sent to her old address, as was the subsequent Court summons. Tracey was therefore oblivious of both the allegation of breach and also the Court summons.

To compound matters, Tracey had not in fact breached the terms of her probation. She had engaged with the CRC’s requirements throughout and done everything asked of her.

Confident of success, I intimated a claim against Merseyside Rehabilitation Company on behalf of Tracey alleging negligence and breach of Human Rights.

Following investigation, the Company denied liability, suggesting that Tracey was entirely responsible for her arrest and detention and that their record keeping was not defective (although we had strong evidence that it was).

I then issued County Court proceedings on behalf of Tracey, and true to their incompetent form, Merseyside Rehabilitation Company missed the deadline for filing a Defence,  such that I was able to apply for Judgment by default. Despite some half baked effort to set Judgment aside, the company subsequently put forward realistic settlement proposals and agreed to pay Tracey damages and costs.

This is yet another case of a probation company sending someone to jail not because they have actually  breached the terms of probation or because they have committed a crime, but rather because of the negligence of the probation officer and/or the probation company.

Sadly, this appears to be a side effect of the botched part-privatisation process, with the CRCs apparently putting profits before people: both in terms of their duty of care owed to people on probation, and in terms of the standards of recruitment and training of their own staff. The latter in particular appears to have been highly inadequate, given the shocking errors these cases highlight, and the gross miscarriages of justice arising from them. If there was anyone in need of close scrutiny and vigilant supervision, it appears to have been more those running the CRCs than the people on probation.

If you or anyone you know has been the victim of similar errors/ incompetence from the Probation Service or a Community Rehabilitation Company, please contact me for advice.

Author: iaingould

Actions against the police solicitor (lawyer) and blogger.