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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Flora Thompson

Criminals shunning sentencing hearings deemed ‘final insult’ to victims

PA Media

Plans for law changes to force criminals like Lucy Letby to face their sentencing hearing could be put forward as soon as the autumn.

The serial killer has indicated she will not take part in her sentencing hearing next week, joining a string of offenders in recent years who have refused to attend court as their punishment is handed down.

The refusal of criminals to “face the music” in court was described by a source close to Justice Secretary Alex Chalk as the “final insult” to victims and their families, as they confirmed the Government is “committed” to changing the law as soon as possible.

Mr Chalk reaffirmed the plans earlier this year after his predecessor, Dominic Raab, promised to act while under pressure over the non-attendance of the killers of Olivia Pratt-Korbel, Zara Aleena and Sabina Nessa to stop offenders convicted of the most serious crimes dodging court and avoiding facing justice.

The court has no power to force a defendant to attend at a sentencing hearing, therefore there is nothing I can do in relation to that
— Mr Justice Goss

Judges have powers to order defendants to come to court prior to verdicts being delivered. If they fail to obey, they can be found in contempt of court and face up to two years in prison – but the law does not extend to sentencing hearings.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak previously refused to say if the proposed legislation would be introduced before the next general election, which is anticipated to take place next year.

Mr Chalk is also yet to publicly confirm when the proposals will be introduced to Parliament despite calls from Labour to act “urgently”, while campaigners have pressed ministers to put forward plans before the end of the current parliamentary session in the autumn.

The PA news agency understands there are plans for the legislation to be put forward later this year or in early 2024, as soon as parliamentary time allows.

A Ministry of Justice (MoJ) source told PA: “It is a final insult to victims and their families when criminals don’t stand up to what they’ve done in court.

“We’re committed to changing the law as soon as we can to ensure that offenders face the music, or face the consequences.”

Letby’s trial at Manchester Crown Court was the subject of a reporting ban until the jury had returned all of its verdicts on the seven counts of murder and 15 counts of attempted murder she faced.

The 33-year-old was in the courtroom on August 8 when the jury returned its first two guilty verdicts of attempted murder, and then again on August 11 when she was convicted of four murders and another two attempted murders.

But at the end of the court day on August 11, the nurse did not return to the dock as the jury was sent home for the weekend.

Letby returned to court the following week but made her last appearance in Court Seven on the morning of August 16, when trial judge Mr Justice Goss sent the jury out to continue its deliberations.

More verdicts were returned later that day, in her absence, and again on August 17 when the court heard Letby had indicated to her legal team that she did not intend to return to the dock.

She continued to be produced at court from prison but would not come up from the cells.

Her parents, John and Sue, who had previously attended the trial every day, did not come to court on Friday as the case ended.

Letby has also indicated she does not wish to follow Monday’s sentencing hearing by videolink from prison, the court heard, but the reasons for her choosing not to attend have not yet been disclosed by the judge.

Mr Justice Goss said: “The sentencing hearing will of course take place whether she is present or not.

“The court has no power to force a defendant to attend at a sentencing hearing, therefore there is nothing I can do in relation to that.”

Thomas Cashman was jailed for life with a minimum term of 42 years for fatally shooting nine-year-old Olivia at her home in Dovecot, Liverpool, while pursuing a fellow drug dealer.

Sex attacker Jordan McSweeney murdered 35-year-old law graduate Ms Aleena as she walked home in Ilford, east London, and was jailed for life with a minimum term of 38 years.

Koci Selamaj received life with at least 36 years behind bars for murdering primary school teacher Ms Nessa after travelling to London to carry out an attack on a random woman.

Each refused to appear in court for sentencing, with their punishments being handed down in their absence.

Olivia’s mother Cheryl Korbel called for the law to be changed to make sure criminals are in court for sentencing, saying Cashman’s absence was “like a kick in the teeth”.

Speaking during Commons justice questions in June, the Justice Secretary said he wants to know that when offenders are “sitting in the cells trying to get to sleep”, that “ringing in their ears are those words of condemnation from the judge, because there are victims who find it hard ever to recover; why should that defendant ever have to sleep soundly in their bed?”.

On Friday, an MoJ spokesman said Mr Chalk had been “clear he wants victims to see justice delivered and for all those found guilty to hear society’s condemnation at their sentencing hearing”.

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