Ministry of Justice Changes to Pre-Sentence Reports

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Parliamentary Briefing - Napo the Trade Union and Professional Association for Probation and Family Court Staff.

Ministry of Justice Changes to Pre-Sentence Reports

The MOJ recently published a Probation Instruction on Determining Pre-Sentence Reports following a consultation period with the Unions. Napo submitted a detailed response (extracts from the response are attached in Appendix 1) via our professional committee which consists of probation practitioner members from all grades of staff. court reports are completed by the National Probation Service for all cases.

There are currently three types of pre-sentence report:

Standard Delivery report which requires a three week adjournment is usually used for high risk of harm and serious complex cases. It includes a thorough risk assessment and detailed sentence plan. Interviews are up to two hours long and take place at the probation office. They allow the officer to challenge an offender on details in the CPS, assess their culpability and motivation to comply. This type of report should only be completed by fully qualified Probation Officers who have completed the appropriate training.

A Fast Delivery report requires a one week adjournment. They are typically shorter and less detailed and can be used for medium risk of harm cases. Interviews will normally last for up to one hour and take place at the probation office.

A Stand Down (Oral) report is a verbal report completed on the day at court. Typically offenders are interviewed at court for approximately 30 minutes. They have previously been used for low risk of harm cases and first offences. Officers use these reports to assess an individual’s ability to complete Unpaid Work or low level Community Orders.

Determining which report to use for each case has always been the decision of the Probation Service as it is felt they are best placed to choose the appropriate format and detail required.

However, the MOJ has now introduced a target that requires 90% of all reports to be either a Fast Delivery or a Stand Down report with full Standard Delivery reports only to be used in “specific circumstances” (although what these are have not yet been defined).  As a direct result of this Napo members have been contacting the union over their concerns on two significant issues:

Probation Service Officers

Pressure is put on Probation Service Officers (not fully qualified) to complete ever more Pre-Sentence Reports for complex and serious offences despite having little or no training in this area. Many staff in this group feel vulnerable and unsupported as they are being directed to write reports on sexual offences and domestic violence, even if they have received no report writing training or training to work with these groups of offenders.  Napo is concerned that along with additional stress to staff, risk triggers may be missed, unsuitable sentencing options proposed and inappropriate sentence plans produced. The MOJ has said that training will be provided but Napo argue that the training to do this work already exists in the form of a trainee Probation Officer post and that this is simply a way of cutting costs and plugging the gaps caused by staff shortages in the public sector.

Complex High Risk Cases

The second concern has been raised by fully qualified Probation Officers who are now under increasing pressure from the MOJ targets, courts and line management to produce Fast Delivery or Stand Down reports for even the most serious sexual and domestic violence offences. Due to the quick turnaround time for these reports it is impossible for officers to contact other agencies who may hold invaluable information relating to the offender (these checks take approximately one week to come through) in advance of the report being completed and the individual being sentenced. This includes the Police for domestic violence checks and Children’s Services for Child Protection checks. Without these safeguarding checks taking place, neither the Probation Service nor the court can be sure that a sentence is appropriate, what the person’s risk of harm is or protect potential victims.

What We Want

Despite running a consultation on these proposed changes it appears that the MOJ has failed to take into account the concerns that Napo has raised. In fact given that some typographical errors highlighted by Napo remain in the final document, it is questionable that our submissions have been read at all. We are urgently calling on the MOJ to review this Probation Instruction. We believe that victims and the public are being placed at risk of harm as risk factors are not identified, courts will be forced to sentence offenders without all the relevant information being available and the professionalism of the Probation Service is being downgraded.   We believe this target should be scrapped and that the type of report used for each case should be at the judgement of the Probation Service who is best placed to make this decision according to the individual circumstances of the offender and the offence.

Questions you may like to ask

  1. How many domestic violence and sexual offences cases have been sentenced using Fast Delivery or Stand Down reports in the last 12 months?

 

  1. What processes or procedural changes will the MOJ put in place to enable Probation Staff to make safeguarding checks with other agencies prior to an offender being sentenced?

 

  1. Where court reports are presented, other than in Standard format: What protections will the MOJ put in place to ensure that staff without a Probation Officer qualification (and thus appropriate training) are not open to criticism or formal action by the employer in the event that a serious further offence is committed or that safeguarding (of children) and /or domestic violence issues come to light post-sentence?
     
  2. What assurances will the Minister give to the judiciary that they are being provided with the best service possible and that they can have confidence in Probation reports to inform their sentencing decisions?

 

  1. Will the Minister agree to meet with Probation Unions to urgently discuss the impact of this Probation Instruction on staff, service delivery and public safety and agree to withdraw the document until such discussions have concluded?

Appendix 1

Extracts from Napo’s response to the consultation on Determining Pre-Sentence Reports

Complexities of process have been heaped on what was once a relatively straightforward matter. In addition, certain targets have gained ascendancy and these have increasingly masked important aspects of Pre-Sentence Reports.

Whilst there is undoubtedly a place both for FDRs (Fast Delivery Reports) and oral reports to court, in Napo's view, these report forms have become far too prevalent at the expense of SDRs (Standard Delivery Reports). What suffers as a consequence? Thoroughness, checks (Safeguarding, Domestic Violence etc), proper argument in sentencing proposals aimed at achieving the most appropriate sentence commensurate with the seriousness of the offending , the prison population -- as a consequence of PSR authors not being able to present and argue credible non-custodial alternatives and the 'felt fair' factor for offenders -- compliance rates are likely to be higher where offenders are properly engaged in the process and where they accept the 'justness' of sentencing, which partly revolves around having the process and the options properly explained to them.

 PSRs used to focus attention on each individual case to explore the best way forward to reduce risk of harm and risk of reoffending. The new speed driven PSR process moves us further from looking at the individual and fast forward toward a tick box/form filling mentality where the defendant is simply a commodity to be processed. Professional integrity is compromised and the role of the PSR in facilitating  post-sentence work, endorsed by the court through their sentencing, is lost in the midst of ever more opaque assessment forms that are barely understood by probation practitioners let alone service users or courts.

The PI makes no reference to the Workload Management Tool… Napo would like to see more reference to realistic timings and consequential resourcing implications in the document… The PI fails to take sufficient account of the Specifications, Benchmarking & Costings (Project) work.  This, for example, in the Operating Model, gives an estimated 30% as the number of reports that would be written as full SDRs on 15 day adjournments.  Napo would question whether even this figure was an appropriate assessment of the number of reports that should be compiled in this way. But the PI moves much further from this figure through use of language such as only in ‘exceptional’ circumstances.

For some years, the court system in England and Wales has sought to become more efficient so as to dispense justice more quickly – generally speaking a laudable intention,  though one which has increasingly come into conflict with the principle of thorough forensic assessment , particularly in the sphere of risk – and thus ultimately with  public protection.  These conflicting principles have been magnified considerably by the new assessment and case allocation systems introduced into Probation for use at and immediately after sentence.

Throughout the PI, there is evidence of confusion regarding what assessment should be done pre and post sentence. In Napo’s view, it is to the advantage both of defendants as well as providers of probation services, and importantly the courts themselves, for proper assessment to be done pre-sentence – hence the original purpose of Pre-Sentence Reports. At the point of sentence, the court was able to pass the appropriate sentence in full possession of both facts and advice. The court was thus in control of the process as quite rightly it should be. The defendant knew from the outset what was expected of him or her and, where engagement with Probation was to be the outcome, the ‘contract’ between supervisor and supervisee had been considered carefully before it became binding by sentence.