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The difficulty with forcing defendants to attend their sentencing hearings

Last week, Lucy Letby was found guilty of murdering seven babies and attempting to murder six others. She refused to attend Court on Monday for her sentence hearing when she received a whole life order. This follows other high-profile cases where defendants have refused to attend their sentence hearings, including Thomas Cashman who shot and killed nine-year-old Olivia Pratt-Korbel as he chased another man into her home in Liverpool in 2022 and Koci Selamaj, who killed primary school teacher Sabina Nessa in a random attack in south-east London in 2021.

There have been calls from campaigners to force these defendants to attend their sentence hearings and face their victims’ families. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak this week said it was “cowardly” when defendants “do not face their victims and hear first-hand the impact that their crimes have had on them and their families and loved ones” and confirmed that the government is looking to change the law to compel people to attend their sentencing hearings.

However it is questionable whether this would be workable or even desirable in practice.

At a sentence hearing, the Prosecution and Defence have the opportunity to make submissions in respect of what sentence the Judge should impose on the defendant. As part of the Prosecution’s submissions, victim impact statements may be read out either by the Prosecution barrister or the victim/their families themselves. A lot of campaigners say that defendants should be made to listen to those statements, and see the families, to understand the pain they have caused. However, even if a defendant is forced to attend the hearing, they could still choose to not listen and not watch what was being said.

Under existing laws, a Judge can order a defendant to attend Court but cannot compel them to do so. Where a defendant has been ordered to attend Court, prison authorities are allowed to use reasonable force to bring them to Court, which can include handcuffing them. However, they may be reluctant to do so, as forcing a defendant to attend Court could increase the risk to everyone around that defendant. The defendant may not comply with the force being used, and that puts everyone else at risk. Further, the defendant could be disruptive during the hearing, which could in fact be even more traumatising for the victims and their families.

There have been suggestions that further time could be added to a defendant’s sentence should they fail to attend their sentence hearing. This may have the desired effect in some cases, but cases such as Lucy Letby, who was given a whole life order, and will therefore spend the rest of her life in prison, adding further time to her sentence would make no difference.

When sentencing Lucy Letby, Mr Justice Goss stated that she would be provided with copies of his sentencing remarks and the victim impact statements of the parents of the babies involved. It is of course a matter for her as to whether she chooses to read them.

What is clear is that there is an increased pressure on the government to do something about defendants who refuse to attend their sentence hearings. What is unclear, however, is how this could be enforced in practice and achieve its desired effect, namely making defendants “face up” to their actions and “getting justice” for victims and their families without causing any other issues. It remains to be seen as to what, if anything, the government will be able to do to appease public opinion.


Legal Disclaimer

Articles are intended as an introduction to the topic and do not constitute legal advice.