Victims must be given greater voice in criminal justice system, urges mother of teenager killed by man on probation

A mother whose son was murdered by a man being supervised by a private probation company has said victims must be given a greater voice within the criminal justice system.

Conner Marshall, 18, from Barry, Vale of Glamorgan, Wales, died in March 2015 – four days after he was brutally attacked by David Braddon at a caravan park.

He pleaded guilty to killing Conner and is serving a life sentence in prison.

But, Conner’s family only found out later that Braddon was on probation at the time for drug offences and assaulting a police officer, and was being supervised by the privately-run Wales Community Rehabilitation Company (CRC).

Probation, which manages the rehabilitation of offenders released from prison or those serving community sentences, was split into two in 2014 by then justice secretary Chris Grayling.

CRCs now supervise those deemed to pose a low- to medium-risk, while the National Probation Service continues to manages high-risk offenders in the public sector. 

The reforms have widely been considered a failure, particularly the work of the CRCs, and have been blamed by staff, unions and campaigners for bringing a once effective public-run system to its knees that is putting the public in danger. 

In a frank interview, Conner’s mother Nadine Marshall revealed:

· Her “battle” to get answers from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and Working Links

· The urgent need for accountability in the reformed probation system

· Her belief that the part-privatisation of probation contributed to her son’s death

· Why more support and a greater voice is needed for victims and their families

Conner Marshall following the attack by David Braddon. Credit: Nadine Marshall

After Conner’s murder, a string of failings by Wales CRC – run by Working Links –came to light in a report called a Serious Further Offences (SFO) review.

A SFO review is triggered when an offender on probation is charged with a further offence of murder, manslaughter, rape and certain other serious violent or sexual crimes. 

Between 2012-13 and 2016-17, the number of these reviews triggered in England and Wales increased from 409 to 507.

The SFO review into Braddon detailed his previous convictions for offences such as domestic violence and animal cruelty. 

It showed that he had missed appointments with probation staff, which should have resulted in action being taken.

Risk assessments and reports had not been completed, his ‘offender manager’ described feeling overwhelmed, and there had been “insufficient identification of the serious risk of harm” that he could cause.

Despite this, the SFO review concluded that Conner’s murder was not predictable and that Braddon’s management by the CRC was not linked to the crime – findings with which Nadine disagrees.

But, the Marshalls would never have even known any of this it if wasn’t for a “huge amount of delving, researching and contacting people” on their own part to see the SFO report for themselves.

Nadine said that “it was very much pass the buck from day one” between the MoJ and Working Links when the family found out about its existence.

“There was lots of ‘ring this department, contact that department, no, it’s not them, it’s Working Links’,” she said. “It all seemed to be in a confusing state, particularly because this was the privatised arm of probation.”

While a full SFO review is not provided to victims, they are able to request a summary of the document.

But, even obtaining the summary was a “real battle”, Nadine told me.

“When we asked for the summary initially it was refused – we were told that it was an internal document used for training purposes only. We fought that and gave lots of reasons as to why we felt we should be able to view it and we were just told ‘no, no, no’ whether it was from Working Links or the MoJ. We were told that it wasn’t something that was given out as standard to families.”

After eventually obtaining the summary, it would take several months longer for the full SFO review to be released to the family.

Nadine said getting access to the full report was vital and that they should automatically be sent to all victims because reading it and the summary was “like having two totally different documents”.

“According to the summary, everything was carried out efficiently and to a satisfactory standard,” she said. “There was nothing in there about any previous offences. However, when you read the full report – which is a tick box exercise – it became very apparent that it wasn’t as rosy and as straight-forward as the summary had led us to believe.”

The CRC services provided by Working Links, which is in turn owned by German investment firm Aurelius, have come under scrutiny from the Chief Inspector of Probation this year.

Her first two reports into its work have both found it to be doing a poor job in protecting the public and reducing reoffending.

In south-east Wales, the Inspector said that “too many people get too little attention” and that “it is hard to avoid concluding that, despite good intentions, simple affordability considerations and an overpowering need to balance the books is driving priorities”.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Nadine believes failing CRCs need to be stripped of their contracts and that the whole system must be made more accountable.

“Both the MoJ and Working Links were obstructive in giving us any information and, when they did, it was very limited,” she said. 

“That in itself tells a story. Why are they so cagey and reluctant to release whatever information a victim’s family requests? The family are already dealing with the most horrific scenario you could ever imagine and, if that is what the family feel they need, why should that be a problem?

“I don’t want another family to endure this awful battle that we’ve had to. I’m realistic enough to known that serious crime unfortunately can’t be eradicated, but victims can be accounted for and there can be transparency. At the moment, this isn’t the case. Other families I’ve met had similar obstacles put in their way at a time when it really is hard enough to put one foot in front of the other.”

Nadine believes that privatisation as a policy contributed to her son’s death.

“Had the system been as robust as it was intended to be, Braddon wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be where he was on that fateful night,” she told me. “We found ourselves with a ticking time bomb which unfortunately exploded and Conner was the victim.

“Public protection isn’t a priority, but profit is. It’s a not fit for purpose system which is hugely flawed and still being given millions of pounds of additional funding.”

Working Links told me that, to date, the Marshalls are the only family in the country to be given access to a full SFO report.

It said that the process of requesting a summary of the report is handled by witness care units, coordinated by the police, and that the process, including who is able to view the SFO report, is set by the MoJ and its CRCs simply follow this process.

A spokesman said that Working Links’ first two inspection reports “highlighted many areas of good practice” and that all recommendations were addressed.

He added: “Our model has been designed to give probation officers more time to spend with service users who need our help the most and present a higher risk of reoffending or causing harm. However, we recognise there are areas of our work we need to improve.”

Since Conner’s murder, Nadine – who has two other children with her husband – has been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and has had to give up work.

“It’s a constant fatigue feeling,” she told me. “It’s not just tiredness, it’s complete exhaustion, whether you’ve had one hour’s sleep or 12 because there’s so much inside my head that goes round and round to do with this SFO report and what happened and trying to find out. It’s all-consuming. But, the reality is, you’ve got to deal with the normal ups and downs of family life as well.”

Since 2014, locally elected police and crime commissioners have been responsible for providing support services for victims, replacing grants given directly by the MoJ to specific organisations.

Nadine said that, although some national charities do great work supporting victims, their work is not spread widely enough as “funding is always the magic word”.

Conner Marshall as a child. Credit: Nadine Marshall

“My bereavement and trauma counsellor is provided by Victim Support but the lady has to come from Swindon which means I only get to see her once a month or every six weeks,” she said. “There’s nothing more local here in Wales. For the PTSD, I went to my GP but was referred to mental health and the process is so long and demeaning, it’s just awful.

“Serious crime victims should be a priority. They are initially, if the family has to endure a police investigation or a trial. But, once that’s fulfilled, the police move onto the next case and the family is left high and dry, searching for support.”

Probation services should offer more to victims, Nadine believes, but they must also have a voice in any wider debate about criminal justice, on par with those campaigning for reform of our prisons.

If this was the case, perhaps the lens through which we view criminality as a society would change. What happens to offenders should matter to us all because any one of us could be a victim.

Although Nadine feels hatred for Braddon, she said she agrees with this and wants people to wake up to the devastating consequences political decisions can have.

“Criminal justice doesn’t just sit with criminals,” she said. “There are other people involved. Conner was literally at the caravan park for one night – it could be anybody at any time and that’s what’s scary.

“Victims of serious crime are seen as a small part of the judicial system. There seems to be an awful lot available for offenders and offenders’ families, but we’re the other arm of that and there’s very, very little.

“As victims we should be given as much as a voice and support as these offenders. And it needs to be discussed in a very pragmatic way – not with condolences and sympathy, but a very real ‘this is how it has changed our lives forever’.”

Why is this voice not being heard?

“The obvious answer is it will show any government in a poor light, to have a victim’s voice is almost admitting that there is a problem and that makes for uncomfortable hearing,” Nadine said.

Earlier this month, she met with the Victims’ Commissioner Baroness Newlove and other MoJ officials who told her that the format of the SFO review would be changed.

A new narrative-style report would be introduced, she was informed, with guidelines and training for staff as to which areas it should cover.

Nadine said the MoJ told her that it had decided to make the change “in reflection of the points that we had raised and other families” and believes it is a “step in the right direction”, but remains sceptical.

Credit: Flickr/James Cridland

Baroness Newlove said that she is aware of the “terrible struggle Conner Marshall’s family had in securing disclosure of the SFO review”.

“Having discussed this with Nadine Marshall, I wrote to ministers to call on them to provide victims to access to these reports, whenever requested,” she said. “It is absolutely essential that when victims are seeking to understand the events that led to a terrible crime being committed, they receive the full support of all government agencies. Denying access to this information can only serve to exacerbate the victims’ trauma.

“I understand that the MoJ is in the process of reviewing its SFO reviews with the expectation the new process will be more transparent and allow victims to have access to the findings. I very much hope this new process will be put in place without delay.”

The baroness, whose husband was killed in 2007, said she agreed with Nadine that victims need more support:

“Our criminal justice system still gives the impression of being solely focused on the needs of the offender. I’m not advocating offenders shouldn’t have rights. Neither do I accept that giving rights to victims can only be at the expense of offenders. True justice requires both the offender and victim to be given rights that guarantee both are treated fairly.”

She is calling for a new ‘Victim Law’ to give victims statutory rights securing “practical support, timely information an empowerment” and an independent advocate to help them through the justice process – something she admits will cost more, but will be “priceless” for victims.

As Victims’ Commissioner, the Conservative peer can make recommendations, promote the interests of victims and encourage good practice – but not formulate policy. Nadine believes that local victims’ commissioners with statutory powers to stand up for victims could be more effective.

Conner’s mother plans to continue raising awareness of probation failings, the SFO review process and the need for greater victim recognition through her social media campaign, A Voice for Conner – a sad, but therapeutic task she now considers her full-time job.

“There has to be recognition that there is a place for victims’ voices,” Nadine said. 

“The mere fact that a family like ours has to get involved in a political debate and speak to journalists to get accountability is completely abhorrent. There are other families in very similar situations, but for genuine reasons, they haven’t got the knowledge, the inclination or the determination to seek that voice and that’s not fair. Conner’s legacy deserves that voice to be heard.”

A MoJ spokesman said: “David Braddon is rightly serving a life sentence for Conner Marshall’s murder. Our heartfelt sympathies go out to Mr Marshall’s family.

“The SFO review of this case found that the awful actions of Braddon could not have been foreseen. Areas for improvement were identified in that report and Wales CRC has taken robust action to address those issues. These include how quickly action is taken when an offender misses an appointment and additional senior oversight of decisions on breach action being taken against offenders.”

The MoJ told me that team managers at Wales CRC are also now observing staff to guide them better on which questions they should be asking offenders instead of relying too much on what offenders themselves report.

It said it acknowledged the performance issues with a number of CRCs, “which is why we will not hesitate to take the appropriate action if there is evidence that CRCs are not performing or delivering the level of service we require.”

But, what – and where – is this action?

For Nadine Marshall, it is already too late.

“There comes a time when you get home at the end of the day when you do have to just feel it and that’s when it’s unbearable. I know there are some very dark places that I need to visit, but, right now, I’m just not ready to do that.”

Follow me on Twitter for prisons and criminal justice updates @Hardeep_Matharu