Helen’s Law on missing victims might not stop killers being freed
Written by on 23 December 2020
Murderers who refuse to disclose where they disposed of their victim’s body could still be freed from jail despite new laws designed to deny them parole.
Martin Jones, the chief executive of the Parole Board, has issued the warning as “Helen’s Law” is due to come into force early next year.
Mr Jones has said convicts will be questioned about where they have hidden a body and failure to co-operate will not work in their favour.
However, he added they will still be released if it is decided they are no longer a risk to the public.
Mr Jones said: “This is a really difficult area.
“It’s described as ‘no body, no parole’ – that’s not what this legislation does, at all.
“It requires the Parole Board to take it into account before we make a decision, but it’s very clear that ultimately the Parole Board has to apply the public protection test in relation to whether that person remains a risk to the public.”
Mr Jones acknowledged missing body cases were “heartbreaking” for victims’ families, but said it would not be helpful for the Parole Board to mislead them about Helen’s Law.
He added: “It is vital that we explain that this is something we will take into account very carefully and will add weight to our decision-making.”
Helen’s Law, officially called the Prisoners (Disclosure Of Information About Victims) Bill, is named after murder victim Helen McCourt.
The insurance clerk vanished on her way home from work in 1988.
Ian Simms, Miss McCourt’s murderer, was released from prison earlier this year despite never saying where he hid her body.
Her family spent five years calling for the legislation to help give grieving relatives closure before it finally gained Royal Assent in November after a series of political and constitutional setbacks.
‘He knows where my daughter’s body is’
When asked whether the law would have changed the Parole Board’s decision to release Simms, Mr Jones said: “My own view is even if this legislation had been in place it would not have changed the Parole Board decision that we made.
“It would not have made a difference if this law had been brought in prior to us making a decision on the case.”
The latest comments could cast doubt on how effective the new rules will be in changing the current system.
Parole Board guidance already says offenders who withhold information may still pose a risk to the public and could therefore face longer in prison.
Courts can also hand down tougher sentences for murderers who deliberately conceal the location of a body.
The law sets out to toughen up existing guidelines, making it a legal requirement for the Parole Board to take into account a killer’s failure to disclose the location of their victim’s remains when considering them for release.
Marie McCourt, Helen’s McCourt’s mother, said: “I wish the law could have gone further, definitely. It’s upsetting to hear the law may not have helped our case.
“Simms has a violent history. How can they say a man like that, who also won’t reveal information, is safe to be released?
“But they have to make sure Helen’s Law makes it harder and makes it far more difficult than it has been.”
Mr Jones, who has been the boss of the Parole Board since 2015, said killers could also add to a family’s distress by lying about how they have disposed of a body.
Helen’s Law will also apply to paedophiles when it comes into force in 2021.
A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Justice said: “Helen’s Law will mean that murderers and paedophiles who refuse to provide details about their victims could spend more time in prison.
“More families will also get the answers and closure they deserve.”