Making headlines this week was the long-awaited re-nationalisation of the probation system in England and Wales, following on from a 2018 “consultation”.
From 26 June 2021 the new Probation Service has come into effect, with responsibility for managing all offenders on a community order or licence following their release from prison. The jurisdiction (England & Wales) will be split into 12 probation areas, each overseen by a Regional Probation Director to ensure effective delivery of and a unified approach to probation services across the country.
This dramatic shake up was largely spurred by the incompetency, inefficiency and multiple failings of the previous probation regime, in place since 2014, which was a quasi-privatised service involving 21 commercial companies running local probation services under names such as “Merseyside Community Rehabilitation Company” and supervising 150,000 “low to medium risk” offenders, whilst the government’s own (civil service) National Probation Service handled the management of the smaller number of “high risk” criminals.
This previous decentralised system created, in my opinion, a ‘Wild West’ environment in the provision of probation services, wherein ex-offenders – some of the most vulnerable people in our society in terms of their mental health problems and risk profiles – were haphazardly supervised by companies whose track record (in my experience) of inefficiency, incompetence and indeed outright negligence was likely a product of commercial concerns leading them to cut corners in terms of proper record keeping, management supervision, staff recruitment and training i.e putting profits before people, at public expense.
I have written before (Can I sue the Probation Service and Are Probation Companies wrongly sending people to prison?) about clients I have represented who, attempting to make the most of the second chance society had offered them after they had ‘paid their dues’/ served their time in prison, had their rehabilitation, and often mental health, very badly derailed through no fault of their own but rather (for want of a more appropriate legal term) probation company “cock-ups.”
Another such example is that of my client Mark Edwards, whose case I have recently settled.
On 20th December 2017, Mark was released from prison on license (which was due to expire in June 2020).
Upon release, Mark was supervised by Kelly Brown, a Probation Officer employed by the London Community Rehabilitation Community. Mark maintained contact via telephone and personal attendance with his probation officer, and did everything required of him.
Mark had concerns as regards the hostel in Croydon which was his first post release accommodation (owing to the proximity it put him in regards to other ex-offenders, who might try and tempt him off the ‘straight and narrow’), and therefore with the assistance and full knowledge of Ms Brown obtained transfer to a new address in Wembley in April 2018. Ms Brown was obviously well aware of this relocation and Mark’s new address.
Mark was now living a significant distance from the Lewisham Probation Office, where Ms Brown was based. Ms Brown advised that there were difficulties in transferring Mark to a more local Probation Office. In the circumstances, Ms Brown advised Mark that from hereon, future contact with her would be by phone only (and not face to face). Accordingly, Mark then kept in contact via phone and kept Ms Brown fully updated as regards any changes in his circumstances (i.e. employment).
On 13th December 2019 Mark was subjected to a random stop and search by Police Officers; I will add here in passing that Mark is black, which might account for the search – he had not been doing anything untoward. However, to Mark’s shock, when he provided his personal details to the Police Officers searching him, he was advised that he was wanted for recall to prison, and, indeed, that he had been “at large” for 2 ½ months.
Mark was accordingly arrested and taken to Brixton Police Station; the next day he was brought before Camberwell Magistrates’ Court and from there re-consigned to incarceration in HMP Thameside.
Whilst in custody, on or about 17th December 2019, Mark contacted Lewisham Probation to protest about his recall. His complaints fell on deaf ears, however, and Mark was obliged to serve a full 28 days in prison.
Following his release on 9th January 2020, Mark received documents from Lewisham Probation Service regarding his license arrangements. In these documents, Mark noticed that in August 2019, he had been appointed a new Probation Officer, Stella Darcy and that on 7th August 2019, Ms Darcy had purportedly written to Mark at his previous address in Croydon, inviting him to attend an appointment on 19th August 2019. By this time, of course, Mark was living in Wembley (and had been for over a year). He had never, of course, received that letter from Ms Darcy.
It appears that in light of Mark’s (innocent) non-attendance, further correspondence was sent to him on19 August, 21st August and 28th August 2019 – all letters going to his old address.
London Community Rehabilitation Company then notified the ‘Post Release’ Sector that Mark had, in effect, ‘gone AWOL’ which then led to his arrest and subsequent incarceration.
Mark had never received any of this incorrectly addressed correspondence. Yet further, Ms Darcy had apparently made no effort to contact Mark by phone (his number remained the same) nor his emergency contact (whose number also remained the same).
It was clear that something had gone badly wrong, and when Mark instructed me I immediately suspected that the shoddy record keeping, which was a hallmark of the now gladly defunct private probation companies, would prove to be the culprit.
This was indeed the case; the recall report prepared by London CRC in September 2019 (completely unbeknownst to Mark) contained the following ‘information’-
· Mr Edwards failed to attend his probation office appointments on the 19/08/2019, 21/08/2019 and 28/08/19 as instructed and has not made contact to give an explanation for his absence.
Further, the recall report stated;
· Mr Edwards was last seen at probation on the 16/01/19. Attempts have been made to re-engage with Mr Edwards after the re-allocation of his case to a different officer. However, Mr Edwards has failed to respond or update the Probation Services as to his whereabouts.
· The recall report left Section 6 (“last recorded address where s/he may be contacted. This must be provided …….”) blank.
· The recall report also stated “Any other possible address: No.”
Yet further, the recall report stated;
· Mr Edwards has failed to report as instructed on his licence. There has been gaps in his being instructed on his licence prior to his case being re-allocated to the current OM. He has since been offered a number of appointments which he has failed to attend. He has not made any contact with probation which he would be fully aware he is required to do so. In view of his continued non-compliance with the conditions of his licence, this has placed him in breach of licence condition 5.iii. On this basis, I endorse recall.
Further investigations revealed that (as expected) Mark’s original supervisor, Ms Brown had failed to update his new address on her company’s case management computer system and had likewise failed to record Mark’s telephone number thereon.
I pursued civil proceedings on behalf of Mark alleging negligence and breach of his rights under Articles 5 (the right to liberty) and 8 (the right to family and private life) of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Mark had suffered severely as a result of the probation company’s errors, and not only in regards to the ‘lost Christmas’ which he had to spend in jail because of the Recall notice. Mark had been getting on with his life, had secured an enjoyable job as a football coach and was actually on his way to a Christmas lunch with work colleagues when he was wrongfully arrested. He was proud at what he had managed to achieve since coming out of prison and couldn’t believe he was being denigrated and labelled as a criminal again, in his words – “By force I had been put back into a life I didn’t want to lead anymore and had put behind me.” He was deeply upset at the thought of what his family would think of him, particularly his mother. Although he had been in prison for a much longer time before his initial release, Mark found the 28 days he had to serve from December 2019- January 2020 felt like a “lifetime” because he knew every minute of it was wrong and unjust, and was potentially undoing all the good work he had done on reshaping his life over the previous 2 years.
Mark got his liberty back when he was released in January 2020, but not his job, nor his mental health. He started to suffer anxiety attacks, he felt he had lost stability in his life and struggled to sleep; a psychiatrist diagnosed Mark as suffering from an Adjustment Disorder in the form of a prolonged depressive reaction (which was sadly understandable in the circumstances).
I am pleased to confirm that Mark is making progress with his recovery, and has since secured new employment; but he is still haunted by the injustice of the incarceration that was inflicted upon him by the negligence of the probation company’s staff.
I have recently secured a financial settlement of £10,000 for Mark, which will hopefully go a long way to compensating him for his suffering and helping him push on to a brighter future.
The elementary mistakes made by the London CRC in Mark’s case, and the general culture of corporate mismanagement that they speak of, would not be acceptable in a mail order company, let alone one which was allowed such power over peoples’ lives and liberty, putting their fundamental well-being at stake.
So I for one am glad to see the back of the era of private operators in probation services; let us hope that the regime that replaces it will properly deliver what its vulnerable users, and the rest of society, demand and deserve.
Names have been changed.