High Court rules prison inquiry chair ‘lacks independence’

The High Court has overturned the government’s appointment of a former prison governor to lead an inquiry into the treatment of a mentally ill girl in custody.

Brian Payling, a retired senior Prison Service manager, was forced to step down after a judge ruled he would not be “sufficiently independent.”

A new chair will be found for the inquiry into how the girl known as SP repeatedly tried to take her own life and injure herself while in custody but was placed in solitary confinement.

The High Court judgement this week follows the resignation last June of the original chair Stephen Shaw, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman. Shaw accused the Prison Service of making an “unwarranted and unacceptable attempt” to fetter his independence.

Last October, the Ministry of Justice appointed Payling, formerly governor of Glen Parva young offender institution and regional area manager for the West Midlands.

But during the High Court challenge brought by the Howard League for Penal Reform, the judge found there was “an objective lack of independence” between Payling and a key witness.  Payling had been taken out for lunch by the governor of New Hall prison at the time of SP’s stay there in 2007, the court heard.

SP, who has a history of severe mental health problems, is expected to make the unprecedented move of giving evidence to the inquiry into her care between 2003-5. She was just 16 when she was remanded into a local authority secure children’s home, but transferred to an adult women’s prison on her 17th birthday. The inquiry will hear claims that SP’s self-harm in prison was so serious that she had to be taken to hospital for blood transfusions.

SP was moved from prison to a secure psychiatric environment in 2005 following pressure from her lawyers at the Howard League. The charity said she has since responded well to care and treatment and is in a stable condition.

Frances Crook, director of the Howard League, welcomed the High Court judgement and said the Ministry of Justice had failed to consult the parties involved when appointing Payling.

Crook has written to Justice Secretary Jack Straw calling for the an “acceptable” chair to be appointed such as a judge or senior lawyer.

“This public inquiry will reveal the miserable and barbaric way that women have been treated in prisons that leads directly to self-injury and suicide.  The testimony of SP herself shows she was failed by social services as a child in desperate need of protection and then failed by the Prison Service when her abject misery became life threatening,” she said.

In response, the Ministy of Justice said it would “carefully consider” the High Court judgement and the implications for the SP inquiry and other similar cases.

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