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Change law “at the earliest opportunity” to allow offenders to be forced to attend sentencing


The Justice Secretary has promised to amend the law at “the earliest possible date” to ensure serious offenders can be forced to attend their sentencing after child killer Lucy Letby refused to appear in the dock.

The 33-year-old was not present on Monday to hear the condemning words of the judge and victims' families at Manchester Crown Court, prompting further outrage.

Letby received a life sentence at the hearing after being convicted of the murders of seven babies and the attempted murder of six others last week.

Earlier this year, Attorney General Alex Chalk said the government was “obligated” to amend the law so criminals could be forced to attend their sentencing after the killers of Olivia Pratt-Korbel, Zara Aleena and Sabina Nessa also refused for to stand himself in the dock.

Mr Chalk said on Monday: “Lucy Letby is not just a murderer, but a coward whose failure to confront the families of her victims, refusing to hear her testimonies of the impact and society's condemnation, is the ultimate insult .”

“We want to change the law so that criminals can be forced to attend court hearings.”

He added: “Cases like this make me even more determined to ensure the worst offenders appear in court, by order of the judge, to be brought to justice.”

“That's why we're exploring ways to change the law at the earliest opportunity to ensure that the silence that follows the banging of the prison gates echoes the society's condemnation in the ears of prisoners.”

The PA news agency understands plans could be presented as early as the autumn, once parliamentary time permits.

But Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer accused the government of “hesitating” the change.

He said: “I hope that the government will do it because I think it can happen very quickly.”

“If not, we will force a change in the relevant legislation. But actually my position is to urge the Government to go ahead with this and to offer their support to the Labor Party so that this can be done very, very quickly.

“This is not the first case. The government has hesitated in this regard for a long time. Keep up the good work for these victims and of course the other cases that have taken place before.”

Labour's Shadow Justice Secretary Steve Reed quoted Mr Chalk's words on Twitter and criticized the speed of the delivery, saying: “‘Are you looking for a change?' Labor last year called for legislation to be changed to force criminals to attend sentencing.

“Your predecessor said he agreed but did nothing. Now just “look” at it. The victims have suffered enough. Keep going.”

Having once seen someone being bound and gagged in court in the United States, I don't think that's an appropriate solution

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told broadcasters on Monday: “It is cowardly that people who commit such horrific crimes do not face their victims and experience first-hand the impact their crimes have had on them and their families and loved ones.”

“We are looking for a change in the law to ensure this happens and that is something we will put forward in due course.”

But Lord Thomas, a cross-party counterpart and former Lord Chief Justice, expressed caution about any attempt to force people to attend.

He told BBC Radio 4's PM program that the “obvious” answer to sentences shorter than life is to have the power to extend the sentence if the sentenced person is not present.

But he said the threat of a longer sentence was “completely pointless” when someone like Letby was already serving a life sentence.

Addressing the possibility of forcing the convict to attend the hearing, he added, “Having once seen someone bound and gagged in court in the United States, I don't think that's an appropriate solution.”

He said an alternative would be to broadcast the judge's remarks into the person's cell.

There is also mounting pressure on the government to give a promised investigation into Letby's crimes greater powers, by giving it a legal basis and ensuring it is led by a judge.

Downing Street proposed giving the inquiry a legal basis but could not say when the mandate would be made public.

Children's Minister Claire Coutinho had previously argued that a non-statutory inquiry would go “much faster”.

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