Criminals who refuse to face justice will be forced into the dock for sentencing under new powers for judges – and face longer behind bars if they fail to appear.
The reforms, announced on Wednesday by Rishi Sunak, will give judges new powers to order an offender to attend their hearings and require “reasonable force” by prisoners officers in order to ensure convicted criminals face the court and their victims and their families.
The power of custody officers to use reasonable force to make criminals appear in the dock or via video link will also be enshrined in law, giving them the protection in legislation to take action. If they continue to resist despite a judge’s order, they will face an extra two years behind bars.
The moves follow an outcry over neonatal nurse Lucy Letby’s refusal to appear for her sentencing for the murder of seven infants.
Thomas Cashman also refused to attend his sentencing for killing nine-year-old Olivia Pratt-Korbel in a shooting in Liverpool, as did the murderers of Zara Aleena and Sabina Nessa.
The Prime Minister, who met Pratt-Korbel’s mother Cheryl in Downing Street on Wednesday to pass on the news personally, said the law change would mean offenders would no longer be allowed to take the “coward’s way out”.
Mr Sunak said: “Like many, I was appalled that people who have committed awful crimes somehow are able to take the coward’s way out and not appear in court for their sentencing and to hear the impact that their crimes have had on the victim’s families.
“I don’t think that’s right. There shouldn’t be an easy way out.
“That’s why we’re going to change the law so that courts could compel these offenders to be present for their sentencing and to hear the impact that their actions have had, but also, if necessary, to use reasonable force to bring those people to court, and also to add time on to their sentence if they don’t appear.
“I think that’s the right thing to do. People rightly expect criminals to face up to the consequences of their actions.”
Alex Chalk, the Justice Secretary, will introduce the legislation this autumn as part of the King’s Speech to ensure criminals begin their sentences “with society’s condemnation ringing in their ears”. However, it is not yet clear when the new law will take effect.
The law will apply to any crime that carries a maximum sentence of life, including murder and soliciting murder, rape, causing grievous bodily harm with intent and causing death by dangerous driving.
Judges will have the discretion to use the new powers as they see fit. This could include not ordering offenders to attend in cases where it is expected they would cause significant disruption that would distress victims and their families.
Ministry of Justice sources suggested that the use of “reasonable force” would not permit officers to drag or carry an offender into court, but would allow the use of restraint techniques.
“If someone was really struggling, that would be less likely to meet the threshold of reasonable force,” said one source.
Ministers accept that a criminal like Letby facing a whole life term without the prospect of ever being released might not be deterred by the threat of an extra two years in jail.
However, they say the option of reasonable force and an enforced video-link into their cell gives judges other options.
Claire Waxman, London’s victims’ commissioner, who has campaigned with families for the law change, said: “While this is a positive step, Government must be wary of the unintended consequence of using force to ensure attendance at hearings, so as to not make sentencing an even more distressing experience for victims.
“It is important that the Government commit to streaming the sentencing and the victim personal statements into the cells of those who refuse to attend in person.”
Labour said that there was still no timeline for when ministers would act.
Steve Reed, the shadow justice secretary, 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.”