Judges to get powers to force offenders to attend sentencing hearings

Judges could be given the power to order an offender to attend their sentencing hearing, including by force if necessary, under planned legislation announced by the Ministry of Justice.

The Government has promised legislation to force serious offenders to attend their sentencing, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak calling it “unacceptable” that some criminals have refused to face their victims.

The promised reforms will give custody officers the power to use “reasonable force” to ensure those awaiting sentencing appear in the dock or by video link.

Those convicted could also face an extra two years in jail if they ignore a judge’s order and continue to refuse to attend court, with such penalties applying in cases where the maximum sentence is life imprisonment.

Justice Secretary Alex Chalk said earlier this year that ministers were committed to changing the law to force criminals to be sentenced in person after the killers of Olivia Pratt-Korbel, Zara Aleena and Sabina Nessa refused to stand in the dock.

It also comes after child murderer Lucy Letby refused to appear for her sentencing earlier this month.

However, Labour said the Conservatives had “dragged their feet” on the issue, accusing ministers of promising to act on four separate occasions over the last 18 months.

The Ministry of Justice said judges would have discretion over whether it is “in the interests of justice” to order an offender to attend court.

No exact date has been given for the legislation and it has been promised in “due course”.

The “crime week” announcement forms part of the latest summer recess policy blitz by the Government, following so-called “small boats week” and “health week”.

Mr Sunak said: “It is unacceptable that some of the country’s most horrendous criminals have refused to face their victims in court. They cannot and should not be allowed to take the coward’s way out.

“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.”

A sketch of empty chairs in court
A sketch of empty chairs in court after nurse Lucy Letby refused to attend Manchester Crown Court during her trial (Elizabeth Cook/PA)

Mr Chalk hit out at “cowardly criminals” who “insult” victims by refusing to appear.

“Our reforms will give judges the power to order offenders to come to court to hear the impact of their crimes directly from victims, so that they begin their sentences with society’s condemnation ringing in their ears,” he said.

Labour backing for the proposal means the reforms could be passed into law relatively quickly, but the legislative process will not be able to begin until MPs return to the Commons in the autumn.

“This will happen in the new session of Parliament when it commences in the autumn,” Mr Sunak told broadcasters during a visit to police station in London.

Labour said that there was still no timeline for when ministers would act.

Shadow justice secretary Steve Reed said: “We called for new laws on this back in April last year – but the Conservatives have dragged their feet.

“This is the fourth time in over 18 months the Government has promised action – and yet again they have failed to outline a proper timeline on when they will act.

“In government, Labour will give judges the power to force offenders to face justice in court. The families of victims deserve nothing less.”