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Writing reports is one of the most important aspects of a probation officer’s role. While time and effort go into liaising with individuals, the Pre-Sentence Report (PSR) is what will be placed before a court or panel as an influencing factor in shaping a person’s future.

Grammar, structure and style

Ensuring it has correct grammar and spellings, and is accurate, is paramount. Equally, the tone is significant in reflecting the message but the structure and style of the report is also relevant.

Above all, it needs to be a professional, accessible, report that will help guide the court in the way the probation worker advises and help deliver an outcome that is in the best interests of the individual at the centre of the scenario.

Further guidance for PSRs is contained within the NPS Court Report Performance Improvement Tool (2016).

Quality of written reports questioned

In June 2017, an inspection by HM Inspectorate of Probation on the work of the probation service in courts question the quality of report writing.

HM Chief Inspector of Probation Dame Glenys Stacey noted: “We found that oral reports consistently provided good advice to courts about what sentence to consider. Advice is sometimes given in short written reports, yet they are not of the same quality, and the NPS must consider why that is. As it is, we found judges and magistrates much less likely to follow sentencing advice in short written reports.”

However, she welcomed the NPS tool to support good court reports.

Approaches to probation report writing

There are factors that a probation worker may want to consider when producing a report and the various interviewing and questioning techniques to acquire the necessary information such as Socratic questioning, the Columbo technique and the Reid technique. Each have different approaches to achieve similar goals.

Socrates, Columbo and Reid

Socratic questioning, named after the philosopher Socrates, is a form of disciplined questioning that can be used to explore complex ideas, to get to the truth, open up issues and problems, uncover assumptions, analyse concepts, follow out logical consequences of thought, or to control discussions. The Columbo Technique is based on the approach of 1970s TV detective Lieutenant Columbo and utilises a two-step method, starting with casual questions to put the other person at ease and get them talking, and then slip in the core questions.

The Reid technique is a method of questioning individuals to assess their credibility. Developed by polygraph expert John Reid, it consists of a three-phase process of fact analysis and behaviour analysis, followed by the Reid Nine Steps of Interrogation.

Whichever technique, or blend of them, you follow as a probation worker, the critical stage is in the writing and ensuring the document is structured, straightforward and informative and clearly conveys the message you and the client wish to put before a court or panel.
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