Lucy Letby ‘cowardly’ for failing to attend sentencing, says Rishi Sunak

Rishi Sunak has branded serial child murderer Lucy Letby “cowardly” for refusing to appear for her sentencing hearing.

The 33-year-old did not turn up in the dock at Manchester Crown Court on Monday as she faced a whole-life order after being convicted of the murders of seven babies and the attempted murders of six more.

The Prime Minister said the Government is looking at changing the law so criminals are compelled to attend their sentencing hearings.

He was asked during a visit to a nursery in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, on Monday whether ministers are moving too slowly on making the change.

Mr Sunak told broadcasters: “The first thing is to extend my sympathies to everyone affected by this.

“I think, like everyone reading about this, it’s just shocking and harrowing.

“Now, I think it’s cowardly that people who commit such horrendous crimes do not face their victims and hear first-hand the impact that their crimes have had on them and their families and loved ones.

“We are looking, and have been, at changing the law to make sure that that happens and that’s something that we’ll bring forward in due course.”

Lucy Letby
Lucy Letby did not appear in the dock for her sentencing hearing at Manchester Crown Court (Cheshire Constabulary/PA)

Letby joins a string of offenders in recent years who have refused to attend court as their punishment is handed down.

Judges can 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 cover sentencing hearings.

Although a Government source suggested “lawful enforcement” could be used as a last resort to ensure Letby attends if it is considered necessary, reasonable and proportionate.

Earlier this year, Justice Secretary Alex Chalk said the Government is “committed” to changing the law so criminals are compelled to attend their sentencing hearings – following the non-attendance of the killers of Olivia Pratt-Korbel, Zara Aleena and Sabina Nessa.

The PA news agency understands plans for law changes to force criminals to face their sentencing hearing could be put forward as early as the autumn, as soon as parliamentary time allows.

Mr Sunak also defended the non-statutory inquiry announced by the Government into Letby’s crimes amid calls for it to be put on a statutory footing led by a judge.

Asked whether it should be upgraded to a judge-led probe, with the power to compel witnesses to appear before it, the Prime Minister said: “I think the important thing for the inquiry to do is make sure that families get the answers that they need, that it is possible for us to learn the lessons from what happened, everything conducted transparently, and to happen as quickly as possible.

“Those are the objectives that we want for the inquiry and we’ll make sure that it’s set up to deliver on those aims.”

Children’s minister Claire Coutinho earlier argued that the independent inquiry launched after Letby’s convictions on Friday would be “much quicker”.

But Dame Christine Beasley, a former chief nursing officer, warned that witnesses “can opt out of it if they want to” as she joined a growing list of figures pushing for the investigation to be strengthened.

Steve Brine, the Conservative chairman of the Health Select Committee, warned on Sunday that some key witnesses may not be willing to co-operate with the independent inquiry, which he said could drag on for years and “disappear down a rabbit hole”.

Downing Street later suggested the inquiry could be put on a statutory footing but could not say when terms of reference for the probe would be published.

Asked by reporters if the Government has ruled out holding a statutory inquiry, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “No, I think as you heard the Prime Minister say this morning, we are focused on the outcomes, the most important thing is to make sure families get the answers they need and that it’s possible to learn the lessons, that it’s done transparently and that it happens as quickly as possible.

“And that’s crucial. And obviously, we will have an inquiry on the right footing to achieve that.”

Pressed again on whether it could be a statutory inquiry, he said: “As I say we will put it on the right footing to achieve those outcomes.”