1. Campaign for a change in the law

In recent years, several high-profile offenders have refused to attend their sentencing hearings, leading to complaints from victims and their families. The nurse Lucy Letby, who was convicted of killing seven babies and attempting to kill six others while at work, was one such offender. Due to her decision, Ms Letby did not hear her victims’ families speak about the impact of her crimes. To address this, the judge ordered that copies of his remarks and the families’ victim personal statements be given to Ms Letby. However, the mothers of some of her victims described Letby as a “coward” and said that her decision to not attend court was “one final act of wickedness”.

Family members of other victims have previously expressed similar frustrations. Farah Naz, whose niece Zara Aleena was sexually assaulted and murdered, criticised her niece’s killer for refusing to attend court. Ms Naz said that his choice to not attend had been “a slap in the face”. Similarly, Cheryl Korbel, the mother of murdered nine-year-old Olivia Pratt-Korbel, has questioned why her family should go through the trial if her daughter’s killer has the option of not attending his sentencing. Ms Korbel has also spoken on the importance of offenders listening to victim impact statements and led a march in Liverpool which aimed to raise awareness of a petition calling for a change in the law.

Both Ms Naz and Ms Korbel, alongside the families of other victims, have called for a change in the law to force offenders to attend sentencing hearings. Others involved in this campaign included Ayse Hussein, whose cousin Jan Mustafa was murdered, and Jebina Yasmin Islam, whose sister Sabina Nessa was also murdered.

2. New powers announced

The prime minister, Rishi Sunak, has said that it is “unacceptable that some of the country’s most horrendous criminals have refused to face their victims in court”. In August 2023, the government announced that it would legislate on the issue, referring to the campaigning of families.

The government said that it would create new powers for judges to order offenders to attend court and enable prison officers to use reasonable force to make criminals appear in the dock or via video link. If a defendant resisted a judge’s orders, the government said they would “face an extra two years behind bars” in cases where the maximum sentence was life imprisonment.

The government also explained that judges would have discretion about when to use these new powers. This could include not ordering offenders to attend where it was expected that they would cause significant disruption or distress to victims and their families. In addition, it noted it would be for prison staff and custody officers to decide whether the use of force was reasonable and proportionate in each case.

2.1 Support for the new powers

Those who had campaigned for a change in the law welcomed the announcement. For example, Ms Islam said that she was “delighted” to see victims and their families being “put first”. Ms Korbel said that she hoped her daughter would be “proud” of the change in law.

The policy also received cross-party support. Leader of the Labour Party Keir Starmer welcomed the changes; however, he has argued that the government should act as soon as possible. He said that if the government waited until the King’s Speech in November, Labour would table amendments to another piece of legislation to bring the change forward.

2.2 Concerns about practicalities

Despite widespread support for the planned changes, concerns have been raised about the practicality of implementing them. For example, Bryn Hughes, a former prison officer whose daughter PC Nicola Hughes was murdered, has warned against a “knee-jerk, headline grabbing response”. Mr Hughes has spoken about his experience of seeing prisoners who had been forced into a courtroom, stating that he had seen them abuse the family and the court, as well as fight against those restraining them. He questioned how such offenders would be restrained and argued forcing such offenders to attend would in reality be “complex” and operationally “fraught with danger”.

England and Wales’s most senior judge has also raised concerns about the feasibility of the policy. In an interview with the Times, Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett of Maldon said that while he strongly believed that defendants should be in court to hear their sentence, the practicalities of such a policy should be considered before any legislation is created. He questioned the impact the policy would have on those who were likely to receive a tariff of more than 20 years or a whole life sentence, as well as the reality for prison officers of dealing with someone who refused to comply. Legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg KC has also focused on the proposal to give those who refuse to attend a higher sentence. He argued that it “makes no sense at all” and would be unlikely to have an impact on those who are already sentenced to life imprisonment with a high minimum term. He also noted that the British legal system does not increase the sentence for other ways an offender tries to evade justice.

In addition, Lord Burnett argued that judges would want to ensure that the sentencing of any defendant remained dignified and would not be “prone to disruption”. On their blog, the Secret Barrister has raised similar issues with the policy. In a piece prior to it being announced, they argued that it demonstrated the drawbacks of policy being created by “people with no experience of the criminal justice system, and no interest in speaking to those who have it”. Highlighting the potential for defendants to behave badly in the court, they argued that unless the policy involved “gagging, binding and propping eyelids up with matchsticks”, it would be practically impossible to eliminate.

Concluding, the Secret Barrister argued that while it was reasonable for victims and their families to be heard and have the offender listen and leave court knowing what they have done, this is something that no politician can guarantee as “sincerity and insight cannot be extracted from an unrepentant defendant”.

Mark Fairhurst, chair of the Prison Officers’ Association, said prison officers were equipped to carry out the policy:

If we have to force people to appear in the dock, then we have the staff to do it, we have the training to do it, we have the skills to do it. Let’s make it happen.

Alternative solutions have also been suggested. For example, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, a Crossbench peer and former lord chief justice, told BBC Radio 4 that the court’s proceedings could be broadcast into an offender’s cell.

Cover image by Michael D Beckwith on Wikimedia Commons.