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Should defendants have to appear in court for their sentencing?

Gemma Shepherd-Etchells

1st September 2023

The culmination of former nurse Lucy Letby’s trial led to a public outcry when she was not in court to hear her sentence after being found guilty of the murder of seven and attempted murder of six babies in her care. The court was told that she had simply refused to come to court and would not be present via a video-link from prison.

Likewise in April 2023, the killer of 9-year-old Olivia Pratt-Korbel, Thomas Cashman, refused to attend his sentencing hearing. Seen as a final act of defiance, at the time the Justice Secretary put forward their commitment to ensuring those found guilty in court have to attend their sentencing hearings. This it is seen gives more power to victims, so that defendants hear their victims impact statements which inform sentencing decisions and is such an important aspect in justice being given to victims. When defendants do not appear at this pivotal time, it can be interpreted that they do not respect the system and gives little closure to victims and their families.

New legislation is currently being proposed in a the Victims and Prisoners Bill which aims to put victims at the centre of the criminal justice process and restrict the rights of those convicted. Amongst allowing government ministers to block the parole process for the most serious offenders, it will also stop those serving whole-life orders from marrying or entering into a civil partnership, so as to not give them the right to enter into life events which they have taken away from their victims.

Indeed in the interests of justice cases can proceed in the absence of the defendant and there is verry little which can be practically done if a defendant refuses to attend court. Reasonable force can be used to secure their attendance, but prison officers and court security staff do not want to be involved in such and there is concern over the spectacle this could create in an already dramatic court room setting. It has been proposed that if a defendant refuses to attend their sentencing hearing then their sentence can be increased to reflect this final act of defiance from them. However practically again, if someone is given a whole-life term this extra penalty is of no significance.

Questions to consider

Should defendants have to attend their sentencing hearings? How can this be practically achieved?

How do you ensure that victims are heard in a court case and their rights respected?

Gemma Shepherd-Etchells

Gemma is an experienced Law teacher and examiner.

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