The justice secretary, David Gauke, is seeking legal advice on how to prevent the release of the serial sex attacker John Worboys following mass public outcry, the Conservative party chairman said.
Brandon Lewis said Gauke, who became justice secretary in last week’s cabinet reshuffle, was taking advice on whether to launch a judicial review into the Parole Board’s decision to release the black-cab rapist John Worboys after less than 10 years.
“The secretary of state for justice will be doing everything he can to make sure this man stays behind bars,” Lewis told BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show, amid reports that cabinet ministers privately warned Gauke that the decision to release Worboys could be unlawful because of an apparent failure to consult victims.
Worboys was jailed indefinitely in 2009, with a minimum term of eight years, for drugging and sexually assaulting female passengers. He has been linked to 102 complaints, making him one of the country’s most prolific sex offenders. He has been convicted of 19 offences relating to 12 victims.
The decision to release him was met with criticism from those who questioned why all of the complainants who came forward had not seen their cases brought to trial.
Lewis said the government would proceed with a judicial review if it received the advice that it would be a successful route to keeping Worboys behind bars.
“Obviously if the advice is that we can go forward with judicial review in a positive way then we will look to do that,” he said. “I think every victim out there, every friend and family, everyone who has read about this case, will want to know we are doing everything we can.”
Lewis said he understood widespread public anger and victims’ distress about the decision to release Worboys. “I absolutely understand. I know someone who has been through this and been a victim of this but even anybody out there who is reading about this will appreciate just how awful this will be for victims to think about someone like this being out on the street,” he said.
The Ministry of Justice confirmed it was looking at the option of judicial review after it was first reported in the Sunday Times. “The secretary of state is minded to move forward only if there was a reasonable prospect of success,” a spokesman said.
The terms of Worboys’ licence are not yet finalised and victims will have a chance to give their views to the Parole Board on suitable conditions before his release
Victims and campaigners are understood to have already been looking at options for judicial review ahead of Gauke’s own investigations. Sarah Green, from the End Violence Against Women Coalition, said victims would “hopefully have some relief at this news”.
Amid signs of a growing political backlash to Worboys’ release, Anna Soubry MP, a former business minister, criminal barrister and friend of one of Worboys’ victims, told Nick Hardwick, the chairman of the Parole Board, that the “statutory process has been breached and the decision to release Worboys is not lawful”.
Soubry urged Hardwick to “make full inquiry to ensure that some grave error has not been made”.
In a letter sent on Friday and seen by the Guardian, she raises “very serious concerns about the process by which the board has decided to release John Worboys”.
Soubry warned that the trauma suffered by at least one of Worboys’ victims had been compounded by her views not being taken into account by the Parole Board.
According to Soubry, her friend was asked in November last year if she wanted to be kept updated about Worboys’ sentence or whereabouts and she replied that she did. However, she was not told at any time he was to be moved on considered for parole or that there was any change in the sentencing regime.
The victim did not know he was about to be released until 4 January when a BBC reporter called her for a reaction. Soubry told Hardwick that there has been “a fundamental error in the process leading to the decision to release John Worboys” because at least one of the victims was denied a right to be heard about his release.
Zac Goldsmith, the MP for some of the victims, is also understood to have written to Hardwick.
Harriet Wistrich, a lawyer representing one of the victims from Worboys’ criminal trial and another complainant, said: “My clients are keen for anything to be done to stop the release of Worboys, who they are both convinced remains a danger to women … Such a challenge would be unprecedented but, in this case, at the very least they deserve an explanation and an opportunity to be consulted. They have already been badly let down by the police, which led them to bring a case against the police for their initial abject failure to investigate him.”
Files relating to 83 separate complainants were referred to the CPS during the police investigation into Worboys. Of those, 14 formed part of the trial while the remaining cases did not pass the “evidential test”.
Following Worboys’ conviction, the Metropolitan police received allegations from a further 19 women.