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UK judges will have the power to order serious offenders to attend their hearings, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said.
The announcement follows a number of cases in the UK where serious offenders refused to be in court during sentencing.
The new rules will enable power of custody officers to make criminals appear in the dock or via video link. The government said that “every effort will be made for victims and their families to see justice delivered.”
If offenders refuse to attend their sentencing despite a judge’s order, they will face an extra two years in prison. The penalty will be applied to offenders faced with life imprisonment sentences, including serious sexual or violent crimes like murder, rape, and grievous bodily harm with intent.
A number of serious offenders have refused to attend their sentencing over the past few years in high-profile murder cases, including the killers of Sabina Nessa, Zara Aleena, and Olivia Pratt-Korbel.
In 2022, Jordan McSweeney, who received a life imprisonment sentence for murdering law graduate Zara Aleena in Ilford, refused to attend court.
Koci Selamaj murdered the 28-year-old primary school teacher Sabina Nessa in September 2021 and was sentenced to life imprisonment. The court heard that Mr. Selamaj did not agree to attend court or to attend from prison via video link.
Thomas Cashman, 34, who murdered 9-year-old Olivia Pratt-Korbel, refused to come into court for his sentencing in April.
Mr. Sunak said it was “unacceptable that some of the country’s most horrendous criminals” avoided facing their victims in court. Offenders should not be allowed to take the “coward’s way out,” he added.
“That’s why we are giving judges the power to order vile offenders to attend their sentencing hearings, with those who refuse facing being forced into the dock or spending longer behind bars,” the prime minister announced.
The government announcement comes following the case of 33-year-old nurse Lucy Letby, who refused to attend her sentencing, where she was given a whole-life order on Aug. 8.
Ms. Letby, who worked on a special unit for premature babies at the Countess of Chester Hospital, was convicted of the murders of seven infants and the attempted murder of another six.
Justice Secretary Alex Chalk then vowed to change the law “at the earliest opportunity” to ensure offenders are required to attend their sentencing hearings.
On Wednesday, Mr. Chalk said the new reforms will ensure that offenders “come to court to hear the impact of their crimes directly from victims” and begin “their sentences with society’s condemnation ringing in their ears.”
It will be at judges’ discretion to decide whether it is in the interests of justice to order an offender to attend court. Prison staff and custody officers will decide whether the use of force is reasonable and proportionate in each case.
The father of murdered police officer Nicola Hughes said that the new legislation was a political “knee-jerk reaction.” Bryndon Hughes said that the law has not been thought through and the downside includes disruption in court, as well as anguish for the families of the victims.
Mr. Hughes, who was a prison officer for 25 years, told the PA news agency that serious offenders can start fighting and shouting when dragged to court because they see “pain and anguish” on the families’ faces.
“I’ve carried people into the dock who are biting, spitting, and shouting abuse and within two or three minutes of the judge speaking to deliver a sentence they’ve started again and the judge has just said ‘take them back downstairs,'” he said.
The disruption caused by offenders who “have total disregard for life and disrespect for law and order” causes delays for the court, Mr. Hughes argued.
The prime minister and the justice secretary, however, said that under the new law victims will be enable to look “offenders in the eye and tell them of the devastating consequences of their crime,” rather than addressing an empty dock.
Legislation to introduce the announced changes will be set out in due course, the government confirmed.