The King’s Speech sets out the government’s legislative and policy proposals for the forthcoming parliamentary session. This briefing focuses on:

  • the Victims and Prisoners Bill carried over from the 2022–23 parliamentary session
  • policy announcements made by the government that may be the subject of future legislation, including around compelling offenders to attend sentencing hearings and mandatory sentences for certain categories of repeat offenders
  • government-led reviews and calls for evidence that may lead to future legislation, including on open justice
  • developments on the Bill of Rights, announced in the May 2022 Queen’s Speech but not introduced during the 2022–23 session

1. Victims and Prisoners Bill (carried over from 2022–23 session)

The Victims and Prisoners Bill is a government bill intended to deliver on a Conservative Party 2019 manifesto commitment to introduce a “victims’ law”.[1] The bill seeks to introduce various measures to support victims, reform the parole system and impose certain restrictions on prisoners serving whole life orders. The bill is split into three key areas:[2]

  • Victims of crime: Part 1 would introduce measures to improve support for victims of crime, including placing key principles of the ‘Victims’ code’ into legislation. The government said such measures were intended to send a clear signal about what victims can and should expect from the criminal justice system. It also said the bill would increase transparency and oversight of criminal justice agencies and improve the delivery of victim support services.
  • Victims of major incidents: Part 2 would establish an independent public advocate to support victims and the bereaved when major incidents occur. This would include support and guidance following incidents where large-scale loss of life or harm had occurred.
  • Parole system: Part 3 would reform the parole system in various ways. It would introduce a ministerial power that could be used to prevent a new ‘top-tier’ cohort of high-risk offenders who have committed the most serious crimes from being released on the grounds of public protection. It would also change the rules relating to the parole board chairperson and membership. These provisions would introduce reforms originally set out in the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ’s) ‘Root and branch review of the parole board’ in March 2022. In addition, part 3 of the bill would introduce measures to prevent prisoners who are serving whole life orders from being able to marry or form civil partnerships. A whole life order is reserved for the most serious crimes and sees an individual remain in prison for the rest of their life.[3]

On 3 October 2023, the government announced plans to amend the Victims and Prisoners Bill. These amendments would introduce powers to automatically suspend parental responsibility from parents who kill a partner or ex-partner with whom they have children.[4] The government noted that any suspensions imposed would be “reviewed swiftly” by a judge to ensure they were in a child’s best interest.

An exemption to any suspension would also be introduced for cases where a domestic abuse victim murders their abuser. The proposal has been named ‘Jade’s law’ following a campaign by the family of Jade Ward who was murdered by her former partner in 2021.[5] Ms Ward’s family—who have been raising her children since her death—have criticised the current system which sees Jade’s murderer maintain parental responsibility. Existing laws require those with parental responsibility to be consulted on decisions affecting children’s health, education and travel. Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice Alex Chalk said the family’s campaign had “exposed an injustice” in the current system.

Whilst some stakeholders have welcomed the bill, others have raised concerns about the bill’s scope. During the House of Commons Justice Committee’s pre-legislative scrutiny, the committee questioned whether the bill would provide victims with any additional support to that already provided for in existing legislation.[6] Additionally, the charity Victim Support has also argued that expanding the bill to include provisions on prisoners could lead to a “distraction” and delay the bill’s progress.[7]

The House of Commons agreed a carry-over motion for the bill on 15 May 2023.[8] This allows the bill to continue its progress through Parliament after the end of the 2022–23 session. The MoJ first introduced the bill in the House of Commons on 29 March 2023. The bill has completed its House of Commons committee stage. At the time of writing, a date for the bill’s report stage had not yet been announced.

The House of Lords Library will produce a briefing for the Victims and Prisoners Bill in advance of its second reading in the House of Lords.

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2. Policy announcements that may be the subject of future legislation

The government is expected to announce a Crime and Justice Bill in the King’s Speech, according to media reports.[9]

The MoJ has made various policy announcements recently. These have included plans to:[10]

  • compel offenders to attend their sentencing hearing
  • ensure the most dangerous offenders spend longer in prison
  • reduce reoffending by rehabilitating lower-risk offenders in the community
  • increase prison capacity

The MoJ confirmed that some of these reforms would require legislation. It said they would be introduced when parliamentary time allows. Further information on the various proposals is set out below.

2.1 Compelling offenders to attend their sentencing hearings

Judges are to be given new powers to order offenders to attend their sentencing hearings, according to plans announced by the MoJ in August 2023.[11] Custody officers would also be given statutory powers to use reasonable force to make offenders appear in the court room or via video link. Offenders who resist attending their sentencing would be given an additional two years in prison. This penalty would apply to offences where the maximum sentence is life imprisonment, including murder, rape and grievous bodily harm with intent. Judges would be given the discretion to use these new powers “as they see fit to ensure justice is done”, according to the government’s announcement. This could include not ordering offenders to attend their sentencing hearings if there is a risk they could cause distress to victims and their families. The government said in its announcement that legislation to introduce these changes would be set out in due course.

In its latest announcement on the issue, the government said changing the law would mean offenders would be present to hear the consequences of their crimes as victims and others read out their impact statements.[12] This announcement followed the cases of several high-profile offenders who have refused to attend their sentencing hearings in recent years. Most recently, Lucy Letby, the nurse who received a whole life order for murdering seven babies and attempting to murder a further six, was publicly criticised when she refused to enter the dock for sentencing in August 2023.[13]

Currently, where an offender is held on remand in custody and directed to attend court for a sentencing hearing, judges do not have the power to force them to attend if the offender refuses to do so.[14] If an offender refuses to attend, the court must communicate to the prison whether or not the offender’s attendance is necessary and why.[15] The prison will then decide whether reasonable force should be used to bring the offender to court. However, whether, and what, reasonable force is used on the offender to secure attendance remains a decision for the prison. Prison officers are required to consider all circumstances, including the offender’s conduct and behaviour at the point at which force is to be used.

Despite widespread support for the proposals from certain campaigners and political parties, some from the judiciary and legal sector have questioned the proposal’s practicality. The then Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett of Maldon said he strongly believed defendants should be in court to hear their sentence.[16] However, he questioned the impact the policy would have on prisoners receiving a lengthy tariff, as well as the reality for prison officers dealing with someone who refuses to comply. Legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg has also argued that the policy would be unlikely to impact defendants who receive a whole life order.[17]

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2.2 Mandatory whole life orders for certain types of murder

Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice Alex Chalk has said the government plans to legislate to make whole life orders mandatory for those convicted of offences that currently attract whole life orders as a starting point for sentencing.[18]

A whole life order is a type of life sentence which sees an offender spend the rest of their life in prison, except in exceptional compassionate circumstances.[19] They are reserved for circumstances where a court considers the seriousness of the case to be exceptionally high.[20] Whole life orders differ from other life sentences which allow offenders to be released once they have served a minimum term and if the Parole Board is satisfied the offender no longer needs detaining for public protection. If released, such offenders will remain ‘on licence’ in the community for the rest of their lives.

‘Whole life’ is the sentence starting point for certain types of murder when committed by an offender aged 21 years or over. However, judges are not mandated to pass whole life orders in these circumstances. When sentencing, a judge begins with the offence starting point and then considers aggravating and mitigating factors to decide what the appropriate minimum custodial term should be.

Announcing the government’s plans, Mr Chalk said that mandatory whole life orders would apply in all but “exceptional circumstances”, the scope of which would remain a matter for the judiciary.[21] Additionally, he advised that the government intended to legislate to mandate whole life orders for those convicted of single victim murders involving sexual or sadistic conduct. Currently, cases normally deemed eligible for whole life orders include the murder of two or more people where each murder involves either a substantial degree of planning, abduction, or sexual or sadistic conduct.[22]

The MoJ has said reforms to whole life orders would be applied retrospectively.[23] This would mean offenders who are yet to be sentenced would face the possibility of receiving a mandatory whole life order, even if they committed the offence before the new legislation comes into force.

The government has said it would legislate to introduce these reforms in due course.[24]

2.3 Mandatory custodial sentences for repeat offenders

The government is reported to have drawn up plans to impose mandatory prison sentences on repeat offenders of certain crimes, including shoplifting, burglary, theft and common assault.[25] Currently, these offences do not necessarily attract a prison sentence but could soon do so if an offender commits them repeatedly. The number of repeat offences needed to qualify for a mandatory prison sentence would vary depending on the type of crime, according to an unnamed minister reported in the Times.[26]

However, commentators including Frederick Cram, a lecturer in law at Cardiff University, have argued that mandatory prison sentences would be unlikely to break the cycle of offending.[27]

These reforms are expected to be introduced as part of a Crime and Justice Bill. Mr Chalk has also said that both the MoJ and the Home Office were looking at alternative ways to punish prolific “lower-level” offenders.[28]

2.4 Domestic homicide sentencing

The MoJ has said it plans to introduce legislation to give cases of domestic murder specialist consideration in the sentencing framework.[29] ‘Domestic murder’ refers to homicides that are committed by a partner, ex-partner or relative of the victim.

In September 2021, the government commissioned Clare Wade KC to undertake an independent review of sentencing in domestic homicide cases to determine whether the existing law and sentencing guidelines were fit for purpose.[30] The government published the independent review’s report on 17 March 2023, followed by the government’s full response on 20 July 2023.[31] The government’s response set out a series of measures it would introduce to give domestic murders specialist consideration in the sentencing framework for murder. This included bringing forward legislation, when parliamentary time allows, to make murders which take place at the end of a relationship a statutory aggravating factor.

The government said it would launch a public consultation “later” in 2023 to seek views on whether there should be a starting point of 25 years for cases of murder that were preceded by controlling or coercive behaviour. It also said the consultation would further explore the sentencing starting point for murders committed with a knife or other weapon already at the scene.

2.5 Full custodial sentences for offenders convicted of rape

On 16 October 2023, Mr Chalk announced that legislation would be introduced to ensure convicted rapists and other serious sexual offenders would spend their entire sentence in prison.[32] This would see offenders remaining in prison until the last day of their custodial term. The MoJ has not yet published further details about this proposal.

2.6 Presumption that short custodial sentences would be suspended

To address recent concerns about prison capacity and reoffending, Mr Chalk has stated the government would legislate to introduce a presumption that custodial sentences of less than 12 months would be suspended.[33] Offenders would instead serve their punishment in the community. Mr Chalk said the government did not plan to dispense with short sentences completely because a custodial sentence would remain the appropriate sanction in some circumstances.

2.7 Overseas prisons to hold UK prisoners

Mr Chalk has announced that the government intends to bring forward legislation to enable UK prisoners to be held in overseas prisons.[34] He stated this would be similar to approaches taken in Belgium, Norway and Denmark. “Government insiders” were reported by the Financial Times to have said that preliminary talks between the UK government and Estonia about housing UK prisoners had already been held. However, it was also reported that the newspaper’s sources had declined to confirm which other European countries had been approached.[35]

2.8 Pornography regulation review

The government has announced a review to explore the legislation and regulation of the pornography industry.[36] It said the review would investigate any gaps in UK regulation to ensure the existing framework is fit for purpose in tackling exploitation and abuse. The review would also look at the effectiveness of the criminal justice system and law enforcement agencies when responding to illegal pornographic content. This would include consideration of whether changes are needed to existing legislation. Additionally, the review would consider what more could be done to inform children about harms caused by pornography.

The government has said the review would involve several government departments, including the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, the MoJ, the Home Office and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The scope of the review is yet to be published. The government has said details on the leadership of the review would be set out in due course.[37]

2.9 Reform of the office of senior president of tribunals

The government has proposed to replace the existing office of senior president of tribunals with a reconfigured one under the leadership of the lord chief justice of England and Wales. [38] This would see the senior president of tribunals sit alongside the heads of division of the England and Wales judiciary.[39] The government has said such reforms would mean that the tribunals judicial office holders in England and Wales would become part of the same judicial structure as court judges. However, it stated that the structure of the tribunals themselves would remain the same. The government has said implementing these proposals would require primary legislation. However, it has not confirmed whether new legislation would be included in the King’s Speech.

The senior president of tribunals is responsible for providing leadership to the tribunals judiciary in England and Wales. The role-holder presides over the first-tier and upper tribunal and employment appeal tribunals. They have various responsibilities relating to matters such as leadership, training and issuing practice directions. The current senior president of tribunals is Sir Keith Lindblom.[40]

The MoJ ran a consultation on its proposals from 11 May 2023 to 6 July 2023.[41] The government is yet to publish the consultation outcome.

3. Government-led review and call for evidence that may lead to future legislation

The MoJ has undertaken a review and call for evidence on several issues, the outcomes of which are yet to be published. Next steps on these could feature in the King’s Speech.

3.1 Review of the presumption of parental involvement in child arrangements

In November 2020, Boris Johnson’s government launched a review of the presumption of parental involvement in child arrangements.[42] This presumption encourages a child’s relationship with both parents unless the involvement would put the child at risk of harm. Courts are required to follow this presumption in their judgments. The outcome of the government’s review has not yet been published and it is unclear if it will contain proposals for legislative change. However, Rishi Sunak’s government confirmed in July 2023 that the outcome of the review would be published “later this year”.[43]

3.2 Open Justice call for evidence

The MoJ held a call for evidence on open justice from 11 May 2023 to 7 September 2023.[44] This covered various topics on open justice, including access to data, broadcasting and the transparency of court and tribunal services. The government said it wanted to introduce new services and changes which could “strengthen the scrutiny and transparency of the justice system”.

The call for evidence closed on 7 September 2023. The government has not confirmed when its response will be published. Additionally, the government has not indicated if next steps further to the consultation will include legislative or policy reforms.

4. Bill of Rights Bill (announced in the Queen’s Speech 2022 but not introduced)

Boris Johnson’s government introduced the Bill of Rights Bill in June 2022. Its provisions would have repealed the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) and replaced it with a new framework to implement the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). However, Rishi Sunak’s government confirmed on 27 June 2023 that the bill would be withdrawn.[45] Announcing the withdrawal, Lord Chancellor Alex Chalk said the government would address perceived issues with the HRA and the ECHR through other legislation, including the Victims and Prisoners Bill. The Lord Chancellor said the government was committed to a human rights framework “that is up to date, fit for purpose and works for the British people”. The bill’s second reading debate did not take place.

The Bill of Rights Bill’s fate remained uncertain for many months prior to its withdrawal. It was reportedly scrapped in September 2022 during Liz Truss’s tenure as prime minister.[46] However, there was speculation about it being brought back in November 2022 under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak before being dropped again.[47]

Discussions about reforming the Human Rights Act 1998 have developed over time. The Conservative Party manifestos in 2010 and 2015 included commitments to replace the HRA with a UK bill of rights.[48] Whilst the 2017 Conservative manifesto said it would not repeal or replace the HRA whilst the Brexit process was underway, it said it would consider the UK’s human rights legal framework once the UK had left the EU.[49] Most recently, the Conservative Party’s 2019 manifesto committed to updating the HRA.[50]

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Cover image by Freepik.


  1. Conservative Party, ‘Conservative Party manifesto 2019’, November 2019, p 19. Return to text
  2. Explanatory notes, p 4. Return to text
  3. Sentencing Council, ‘Life sentences’, accessed 8 August 2023. Return to text
  4. Ministry of Justice, ‘Jade’s law to be introduced to better protect children’, 3 October 2023. Return to text
  5. Sarah Easedale, ‘Jade Ward: Pride of murdered woman’s family over law change’, BBC News, 3 October 2023. Return to text
  6. House of Commons Justice Committee, ‘Pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft victims bill’, 30 September 2022, HC 304 of session 2022–23. Return to text
  7. Victim Support, ‘Victim Support responds to the Victims and Prisoners Bill’, 29 March 2023. Return to text
  8. HC Hansard, 15 May 2023, col 667. Return to text
  9. Matt Dathan and Steven Swinford, ‘Build prisons to fit shoplifters, minister suggests’, Times (£), 1 August 2023. Return to text
  10. Ministry of Justice, ‘Prison reforms will cut reoffending and put worst offenders behind bars for longer’, 16 October 2023. Return to text
  11. Ministry of Justice, ‘Offenders to be ordered to attend sentencing’, 30 August 2023. Return to text
  12. As above. Return to text
  13. Sky News, ‘Lucy Letby absence from sentencing “one final act of wickedness from a coward”’, 21 August 2023. Return to text
  14. House of Commons, ‘Written question: Sentencing: Attendance (155932)’, 19 April 2022. Return to text
  15. Crown Prosecution Service, ‘Defendant’s refusal to attend court’, 23 September 2022. Return to text
  16. Frances Gibb, ‘Forcing killers into the dock? The lord chief justice has doubts’, Times (£), 2 September 2023. Return to text
  17. Joshua Rozenberg, ‘We can’t force Letby to attend court’, A Lawyer Writes, 21 August 2023. Return to text
  18. Ministry of Justice, ‘Letter to Sir Robert Neill, chair of the House of Commons Justice Committee, ref whole life order announcement’, 25 August 2023. Return to text
  19. Sentencing Council, ‘Life sentences’, accessed 8 September 2023. Return to text
  20. Schedule 21, paragraph 2 of the Sentencing Act 2020. Return to text
  21. Ministry of Justice, ‘Letter to Sir Robert Neill, chair of the House of Commons Justice Committee, ref whole life order announcement’, 25 August 2023. Return to text
  22. Schedule 21, paragraph 2(2)(a) of the Sentencing Act 2020. Return to text
  23. Ministry of Justice, ‘Whole life order reforms to be applied to active cases’, 3 October 2023. Return to text
  24. Prime Minister’s Office, ‘PM announces new plans so society’s most depraved killers will face life behind bars’, 26 August 2023. Return to text
  25. Donna Ferguson, ‘Shoplifters who commit repeat offences to face prison’, Guardian, 1 August 2023. Return to text
  26. Matt Dathan and Steven Swinford, ‘Build prisons to fit shoplifters, minister suggests’, Times (£), 1 August 2023. Return to text
  27. Frederick Cram, ‘Why imprisoning repeat shoplifters rarely breaks the cycle of offending—and what may work better’, The Conversation, 11 August 2023. Return to text
  28. HC Hansard, 16 October 2023, col 60. Return to text
  29. House of Commons, ‘Written statement: Domestic homicide sentencing review: Government response to the independent review by Clare Wade KC (HCWS980)’, 20 July 2023. Return to text
  30. Ministry of Justice, ‘Spotlight on domestic homicides as independent reviewer appointed’, 9 September 2021. Return to text
  31. Ministry of Justice, ‘Domestic homicide sentencing review and government response’, updated 3 August 2023. Return to text
  32. HC Hansard, 16 October 2023, col 58. Return to text
  33. HC Hansard, 16 October 2023, col 60. Return to text
  34. HC Hansard, 16 October 2023, col 61. Return to text
  35. George Parker, ‘British prisoners face serving time abroad to ease pressure on jails’, Financial Times (£), 16 October 2023. Return to text
  36. Department for Science, Innovation and Technology and Ministry of Justice, ‘Pornography review launched to ensure strongest safeguards’, 3 July 2023. Return to text
  37. House of Commons, ‘Written question: Pornography (199323)’, 13 September 2023. Return to text
  38. Ministry of Justice, ‘Tribunals leadership: Consultation on reform of the office of senior president of tribunals’, 11 May 2023; since the government’s announcement, Lady Chief Justice Dame Sue Carr has been appointed as the current head of the judiciary of England and Wales and the president of the courts of England and Wales. Return to text
  39. These heads of division are the president of the King’s Bench Division, the president of the Family Division and the Chancellor of the High Court. Return to text
  40. Courts and Tribunals Judiciary, ‘Senior president of tribunals’, accessed 18 September 2023. Return to text
  41. Ministry of Justice, ‘Tribunals leadership: Consultation on reform of the office of senior president of tribunals’, 11 May 2023. Return to text
  42. Ministry of Justice, ‘Child protection at heart of courts review’, 9 November 2020. Return to text
  43. House of Commons, ‘Written question: Family proceedings: Safety (194531)’, 17 July 2023. Return to text
  44. Ministry of Justice, ‘Open justice: The way forward’, 11 May 2023. Return to text
  45. HC Hansard, 27 June 2023, col 145. Return to text
  46. BBC News, ‘Bill of rights: Liz Truss shelves plans to reform human rights law’, 7 September 2022. Return to text
  47. Tony Diver, ‘Rishi Sunak bringing back bill of rights to resolve migrant clash with European court’, Telegraph (£), 5 November 2022. Return to text
  48. Conservative Party, ‘Conservative Party manifesto 2010’, April 2010, p 79; Conservative Party, ‘Conservative Party manifesto 2015’, April 2015, p 58. Return to text
  49. Conservative Party, ‘Conservative Party manifesto 2017’, May 2017, p 37. Return to text
  50. Conservative Party, ‘Conservative Party manifesto 2019’, November 2019, p 48. Return to text