A National Audit Office investigation shows that prisoners have received £1.1m in compensation as a result of delayed parole hearings, as the Parole Board turns to technology to help clear a significant backlog of cases.

The Parole Board is an independent body that risk-assesses prisoners to decide if they can be safely released into the community.

An NAO report published today states that the Parole Board conducted 7,148 oral hearings in 2015-16. A third of listed oral hearings were deferred in the year to September 2016. At the peak of the board’s backlog, in January 2015, there was an average of 3,163 outstanding cases. 

The growing backlog has been attributed to a Supreme Court ruling in October 2013, which broadened the circumstances in which the law requires the board to hold an oral hearing, with fairness to the prisoner being the overriding factor.

Prisoners who experience delays can claim compensation under the Human Rights Act once their case is concluded. They can claim at a rate of around £50 per month of delays if they are turned down for parole. If they are released following a delay, they can claim at a rate of around £650 per month.

In 2015-16, the board received 463 private law damages claims, up from 89 in 2014-15.

Since 2011-12, the board has paid out £1.1m in compensation for delayed hearings. A further breakdown shows that prisoners were paid £554,000 in compensation in 2015-16, compared with £87,000 in 2012-13.

The report states: 'As the board attempts to reduce the backlog of outstanding cases, it will crystallise its liability for an increased number of potential compensation claims, and compensation costs may increase.

'In its 2015-16 accounts, the board included a provision for £343,000 relating to known legal claims where these could be reliably estimated and which it expects it would have to pay out in the future.’

The Parole Board welcomed today’s report.

Professor Nick Hardwick, chair, said: 'I am pleased the NAO has recognised the huge challenges the Parole Board faced as it dealt with more cases and more oral hearings with fewer Parole Board members. As a result, the backlog of outstanding cases grew, with unacceptable delays for victims and prisoners. Given the scale of the challenge it has taken time to put things right.’

Last year ministers approved the appointment of 104 Parole Board members following a major recruitment drive last year. Of the new recruits, 49 started in the current financial year; the remainder will start in 2017/18. The new members include seven psychiatrists and 20 psychologists.

Parole Board chief executive Martin Jones said the Parole Board’s digital project to have paperless hearings by October will help the body to run more efficiently.

Jones added: 'The majority of our members have transitioned from paper to digital working, saving the board time and money. The backlog at present is 2,030 cases, down over a third from its high point of 3,163 cases in 2015, and we are on track to eradicate the delays by the end of the year.’

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said the department is working hard to reduce the backlog of cases involving IPP [imprisonment for public protection] prisoners. 'We have set up a new unit to tackle this issue and are working with the Parole Board to improve the efficiency of the process,’ the spokesperson added.