MoJ proposes new powers for judges, but caution raised over potentially disruptive behaviour by prisoners compelled to appear
File court artist drawing by Elizabeth Cook of empty chairs in court after nurse Lucy Letby refused to attend Manchester Crown Court during her trial
Judges will be given the power to order an offender to attend a sentencing hearing, including by force if necessary, under new laws proposed by the Ministry of Justice.
The move in England and Wales comes after a number of high-profile offenders failed to appear for their sentencing hearings including Lucy Letby, the nurse who was found guilty of murdering seven babies, and the murderer of nine-year-old Olivia Pratt-Korbel.
But Bryn Hughes, the father of a murdered police officer, warned against a “kneejerk, headline-grabbing” response to the two high-profile cases, cautioning that some prisoners’ behaviour in court if forced to attend could be distressing for victims’ families.
The power of custody officers to use reasonable force to make criminals appear in the dock or via video link would also be enshrined in law, meaning every effort would be made for victims and their families to see justice delivered, the MoJ said.
If a criminal resists attending their sentencing despite a judge’s order, they will face an extra two years behind bars. This new penalty will apply in cases where the maximum sentence is life imprisonment, including serious sexual or violent crimes such as murder, rape and grievous bodily harm with intent.
The prime minister, Rishi Sunak, said: “It is unacceptable that some of the country’s most horrendous criminals have refused to face their victims in court. They cannot and should not be allowed to take the coward’s way out.
“That’s why we are giving judges the power to order vile offenders to attend their sentencing hearings, with those who refuse facing being forced into the dock or spending longer behind bars.”
Legislation to introduce the changes would be set out in due course, the MoJ added.
The change in the law follows campaigning by Farah Naz, the aunt of Zara Aleena, and Cheryl Korbel, the mother of Olivia Pratt-Korbel. Aleena’s murderer, Jordan McSweeney, and Olivia’s killer, Thomas Cashman, both refused to attend their sentencing hearings.
Korbel said she hoped that Olivia would have been “proud of what we’ve done”.
“Because at the end of the day, it’s in her name, it’s why we’ve done this. And not only in her name, it’s for every other family out there that has gone through it. We just hope it gets changed so no one else has to go through it,” she told ITV.
However, there has been some opposition to the announcement, with Hughes, whose daughter PC Nicola Hughes was killed in 2012 alongside a fellow PC, Fiona Bone, in a gun and grenade ambush while on duty in Greater Manchester, warned about prisoners’ potential behaviour.
“I have seen it from both sides of the courtroom: on being the father of someone who was murdered and being in court, and a former prison officer who has actually restrained someone into court. It is difficult,” he said.
He said that he had seen the behaviour of prisoners forced into courtrooms: “Foul abuse towards the family, abused the court, turned their back, kicked off, fought, spat, bitten people.
“They are beyond being told to sit down and be quiet, aren’t they? If you are going to restrain them in court, is it going to involve a Hollywood-style Hannibal Lecter outfit?” he asked.
Hughes said it was often very difficult to force people up the often narrow steps from the cells into courtrooms. “In reality, it is complex and operationally it is fraught with danger,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to see them dragged up into the dock shouting abuse about the final moments of your loved one.”
Letby provoked outrage earlier this month when she failed to appear for her sentencing. She was handed a whole-life order for murdering seven babies and trying to kill another six.
One bereaved mother called Letby’s absence “one final act of wickedness from a coward”.
Judges would have the discretion to use the new powers as they saw fit to ensure justice was done, the MoJ said, adding this could include ordering offenders not to attend in cases where it was expected that they would cause significant disruption that would distress victims and their families.
The justice secretary, Alex Chalk, said: “Every time a cowardly criminal hides from justice by refusing to appear in the dock for their sentencing, it is another insult to their victims and their families. Our reforms will give judges the power to order offenders to come to court to hear the impact of their crimes directly from victims, so that they begin their sentences with society’s condemnation ringing in their ears.”
Steve Reed, the shadow justice secretary, said: “It is disrespectful and grossly offensive to victims that brutal murderers, terrorists and rapists can refuse to face the consequences of their crimes in court. If the defendant doesn’t come and face justice, it’s beyond cowardly, and can have a devastating impact on victims and their families. This can be a vital part of seeing justice done.
“We called for new laws on this back in April last year – but the Conservatives have dragged their feet. This is the fourth time in over 18 months the government has promised action – and yet again they have failed to outline a proper timeline on when they will act.
“In government, Labour will give judges the power to force offenders to face justice in court. The families of victims deserve nothing less.”
It will be interesting to see how this plays out as there are many obstacles to overcome.
This morning on the radio a caller from overseas talked of cases he had seen when the killer was forced to court, a particular case involved a man who had rape and killed a 12 year old girl.
The killer looked at the victim's father in the eye and said your daughter deserved it and enjoyed the sexual experience.
We can only begin to imagine how the father felt.