Prisoners inundate Supreme Court to avoid parole hearing delays

Queensland prisoners have swamped the Supreme Court with applications for judicial review in a bid to avoid current delays of up to nine months for parole hearings.

Meanwhile, the Queensland Government recently introduced legislation that could give Parole Board Queensland (PBQ) up to 180-days (six months) to hear and decide applications – rather than the currently legally mandated 120-day (four months) – to help alleviate the crisis.

The issue of significant delays for thousands of prisoners awaiting parole hearings has been the talk of the legal profession for the past 12-months, with Queensland Law Society earlier this year calling on Treasurer Cameron Dick to remedy the situation.

QLS President Elizabeth Shearer, in a five-page submission in April last year, said the Society received concerning information from its members and stakeholders that Parole Board Queensland was taking more than eight months, up to 250 days in some cases, to consider inmate applications rather than the 120-day maximum mandated under the Corrective Services Act 2006 (CSA).

The issue was raised again earlier this month with the release by the Queensland Prisoners’ Legal Service 2020-21 annual report, in which Director Helen Blaber described the “human cost” of the delays as having tragic consequences on countless inmates.

The persistent delays were also acknowledged by PBQ Deputy President Peter Shields in his revealing QLS Modern Advocate Lecture last month.

“Whilst the board has been subject to some criticism in the press and elsewhere, it was the senior (PBQ) board members who transparently brought the backlog into the public domain,” Mr Shields said.

He said PBQ had also raised the issue during a myriad of presentations to the judiciary and stakeholders.

“In my mind the most important presentations have been those to the judiciary and the profession outlining the significant delays in the ability of the board to meet its statutory time frames, to decide whether to grant or to refuse a parole order, due to the backlog of parole applications caused by insufficient resources,” he said.

In a bid to curtail PBQ’s repeated failures to hear parole applications, inmates aided by dedicated community legal centres such as PLS and LawRight have inundated Queensland’s Supreme Court with applications under s22 of the Judicial Review Act.

Ms Blaber said applications for judicial reviews by inmates had been assisted with the publication and circulation of a ‘Judicial Review Toolkit’ produced by PLS and LawRight throughout the state’s 19 correctional centres.

In recent weeks, the Supreme Court has been dealing with up to 15 judicial review applications each day, often resulting in PBQ giving a commitment to hear the matter within a two-week period.

Today (27 September), Justice David Jackson is scheduled to hear nine such matters in applications court.

Ms Blaber said that, while the judicial review approach was assisting many inmates, the most vulnerable prisoners – such as those who could not read or write, or did not possess the basic skills to represent themselves in court – were being left behind and languishing in prison much longer.

“These delays have resulted in many people who do not pose a risk to the community spending months longer in prison than expected because they were waiting for their release application to be considered,” she said.

“The human cost of these delays is incalculable and we have heard stories of people losing their houses, jobs and relationships as well as missing key life events such as childbirth and funerals.

“There is of course also a significant financial cost of keeping people in prison who would be released if their cases were considered faster.”

The number of applications for Supreme Court judicial review resulted in the court’s former Senior Judge Administrator, Justice Ann Lyons, issuing a protocol for applications on 25 June 2021.

On Friday, the court’s current Senior Judge Administrator, Justice Helen Bowskill, released an updated Supreme Court protocol which will come into effect from 5 October.

The protocol applies to any application made by a prisoner under s22(2) of the Judicial Review Act 1991 for a statutory order of review of a failure by PBQ to decide a prisoner’s parole application within the period fixed by s193(3) of the CSA.

It is understood a review of PBQ by professional services organisation KPMG, which was commissioned by the State Government earlier this year, has now been completed and provided to the Government, but its recommendations are yet to be made public.

Mr Shields said that, as PBQ waited on the findings and recommendations of the KPMG review, he acknowledged that the State Government had pro-actively provided two additional parole board panels (bringing the total to five) to help address delays.

In another move aimed to ease PBQ’s burden, the Government recently introduced proposed legislation that could result in parole applicants having to waiting longer for their hearings – up from 120 to 180 days.

Under the current CSA, the Parole Board is required to make a decision on a parole application within 120 days, which may be deferred in certain circumstances for a total of up to 150 days.

Under the proposed legislative amendments tabled in Queensland Parliament earlier this month, “temporary extension periods” of 180 days are proposed for “new parole applications”.

The Police Powers and Responsibilities and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2021 is currently with the parliamentary Legal Affairs and Safety Committee.

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