Judges given power to order offenders to attend sentencing hearings

Judges will 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.

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.

File court artist drawing by Elizabeth Cook of empty chairs in court after nurse Lucy Letby refused to attend Manchester Crown Court during her trial

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

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.”

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 has previously said it would back such a change, meaning the reforms could be passed into law relatively quickly.