The Memo: Plans to make it compulsory for offenders to attend their sentencing hearings

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Plans to make it compulsory for offenders to attend their sentencing hearings

Emily Dunham – 18 September 2023

If you’ve been keeping up with the news recently, the name Lucy Letby is one that you’re likely to be familiar with. The 33-year-old former neo-natal nurse was recently sentenced to a whole life order for the murder of seven babies and the attempted murder of six others. Not only did her crimes cause public outrage, but Letby’s decision not to attend her sentencing hearing was described by the mother of two of her victims as “just one final act of wickedness from a coward,” leading to renewed calls from the public, and the bereaved families of victims, for changes to the rules surrounding sentencing hearings.

These calls for change also follow the refusal of several other high-profile offenders to appear in court at their sentencing hearings: Thomas Cashman, killer of 9-year-old Olivia Pratt-Korbel, Koci Selamaj, killer of murdered schoolteacher Sabina Nessa, and Hashem Abedi, who helped his brother to carry out the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017, killing 22. Whilst former justice secretary Dominic Raab outlined intentions to make similar changes in April this year, current proposals are the most concrete they have ever been.

As detailed within the government’s press release regarding the reforms announced on August 30th, there are plans to change rules so that judges have the discretion to make it compulsory for offenders to attend sentencing hearings, meaning that victims will be able to address offenders directly when reading their victim impact statements. It is proposed that some level of necessary force may be used to make offenders attend court, and that two extra years could be added to prison sentences when offenders refuse to attend and have been convicted of those crimes where the maximum sentence is life imprisonment.

Whilst public opinion appears to be generally in support of these changes, they are not without criticism. Defence Lawyer Thomas Leonard Ross KC called the proposals into question on the grounds that while judges already have similar powers through the Contempt of Court Act, this has almost never been used. Mark Fairhurst, National Chairman of the Prison Officers’ Association also expressed some concern about the changes over the difficulty of enforcing them. Bryn Hughes, the father of a murdered police officer, also warned of the behaviour of offenders when forced into court rooms, including abuse towards the family, and the risk it poses for causing further harm.

The Prime Minister has said that the changes will be introduced in the autumn, but has given no definitive deadline. So it looks like changes to sentencing hearings are coming, but we will have to wait and see when they arrive, and how often and successfully they are used.