News & Insights

Lucy Letby and the reality of compelling defendants to attend sentencing hearings


Following Lucy Letby’s sentence on Monday 21st August 2023, the Government has reacted to renewed calls for offenders to be forced to attend their sentencing hearings. Rachel Pain considers some of the issues.

Lucy Letby was convicted of seven counts of murder and seven counts of attempted murder against six babies, for which she received a whole life sentence. Her refusal to attend her sentencing hearing last week – and to attend court for some of the verdicts – has sparked fury in both politicians and members of the public.

This is not the first time such calls have emerged; the issue came to the forefront of public debate in April this year following the refusal of Thomas Cashman to attend his sentence for the murder of a 9 year old girl, and of those convicted of the murders of Sabina Nessa and Zara Aleena last year.

Each time the issue resurfaces, sweeping pledges from MPs follow. Promises that convicted murders will absolutely be forced to face justice renew, and the issue is banded about as political ammunition, by both sides of the political spectrum.

Rishi Sunak has now confirmed plans to introduce the new law when parliament returns in the autumn. The law would enable “reasonable force” to be used to force offenders to attend their sentencing hearing, with the threat of lengthening their sentence by up to two years if they do not.  It would apply in cases where the maximum sentence is life imprisonment, including murder and rape.

As is often the case with promises of new policies in our criminal justice system, the pledges seek to appease public opinion without examining the practicalities of how they will be achieved or whether they are, in reality, a good idea.

The new policy amounts to little more than an empty soundbite given that courts already have the power to hold defendants in contempt of court if they do not attend. The power is rarely used, for good reason. 

The sanction of up to two years’ custody for failure to attend has little bite for those facing significant minimum terms attached to a Life Sentence:  Thomas Cashman received 42 years, Koci Selamaj 36 years, Jordan McSweeney 38 years.  Lucy Letby received a whole life order, making the threat of adding up to two years literally meaningless.

Dominic Raab’s suggestion that prison staff should “physically [have] to manhandle somebody out of the cell”, fails to have regard both for the underpaid and overworked staff that would be forced to face this task, and the consequences of doing so.  In May 2023, Serco was fined more than £2 million for health and safety failings that led to the death of Lorraine Barwell, a custody officer who was attacked as she tried to escort a (mentally unwell) prisoner from his cell at Blackfriars Crown Court in June 2015.  Politicians may not have this in mind, but Judges, Serco and G4S executives do.  The suggestion that staff be made to “manhandle” reluctant convicted murderers into the dock – and then sit in the dock with them, throughout the hearing they are intent on evading – is untenable and potentially dangerous.

The consequences are not only for those inside the dock. Calls for offenders to attend their sentencing hearing are intended to bring closure and justice to victims’ grieving families – who should be a central consideration.  At best, the families may not see the remorse they had hoped for. At worst, the level of disruption or abuse could shock and upset those present, and derail the hearing. It is unlikely to achieve anything other than worsening the grief of those in attendance.

As is routine with suggested policy changes to the justice system, the proposals do not account for its current crumbling state and our overburdened courts. At present, even production of defendants who voluntarily attend their hearings is often a struggle, and ‘refusal’ forms are treated with healthy scepticism by most Judges, who are aware that the private firms responsible for producing defendants at court face financial penalties if they fail to produce a defendant, unless the paperwork shows that the defendant refused to attend. 

The MOJ has raised the possibility of livestreaming to cells. It is hard to see how this will be achieved when justice system funding is already stretched to the limit and many courts lack functionalities as basic as drinking water.  None of the pledges have come alongside promises of better funding.

The call for offenders to be forced to attend sentence is a familiar one that gains force each time a case receives significant media attention. Similar to continual promises of tougher sentences and Suella Braverman’s call for every theft to be investigated, it is part of the ongoing political ‘tough on crime’ narrative, promising harsher policies rather than addressing the failure to fund an inadequate system. 

A wider look at the improvements required in our justice system is no doubt required. But forcing offenders to attend their sentencing hearings is a reactive, unworkable distraction, not the answer. Ultimately, these promises do nothing but take away focus from victims and their families, and ignore the much bigger issues in our justice system.


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