The refusal of several adult murderers to attend their sentencing hearings has led to a recognition of the need to clarify the court’s powers to compel attendance.
Examples of recent sentencing hearings where the offender did not attend include:
- Zahid Younis, in September 2020, for the murder of Henriett Szucs and Mihrican Mustafa
- Koci Selamaj, in April 2022, for the murder of Sabina Nessa
- Jordan McSweeney, in December 2022, for the murder of Zara Aleena
- Thomas Cashman, in July 2023, for the murder of Olivia Pratt-Korbel
- Lucy Letby, in August 2023, for the murder and attempted murders of thirteen infants
The Government has expressed its view that an offender’s refusal to attend can cause victims’ families significant further distress. In these circumstances, refusing to attend is often seen as a final insult to the family, as it denies them the opportunity to see the full administration of justice, and allows the convicted to avoid having to listen to victims’ personal statements and confront the consequences of their crime.
As a result of political and public concern, the government will bring forward legislation to compel attendance in some cases.
The new provisions will allow the Crown Court to directly order an individual to attend their sentencing hearing by creating an express statutory power to make an attendance order.
Any adult who refuses to attend, without reasonable excuse, will commit a contempt and therefore face a maximum penalty of an additional custodial sentence of up to 24 months.
Any child who refuses to attend will face a maximum penalty of a £2,500 fine. This measure will apply to adults and children convicted of an offence for which the maximum penalty is a life sentence.
There will also be an express power for judges to require prisons to produce adults to court for sentencing hearings. It will make clear that prison officers and prisoner escort officers may use reasonable force to produce an adult to court for their sentencing hearing where it is necessary and proportionate.
However, the final decision on whether to use reasonable force remains that of prison and escorting staff. Children will not be subject to the use of reasonable force for this purpose, in line with domestic policy guided by the Taylor Review (2020) and the UK’s commitments under the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child.
It will be for judges to decide whether to order an individual to attend court, in addition to deciding whether a prison will be required to produce them. The Government expects that they will use the new powers as they see fit to ensure justice is done.
This could include not ordering individuals to attend where they may cause significant disruption in court, or whether there are other significant factors, including mental health and learning disabilities. Courts will be required to consult with Youth Offending Teams (“YOTs”) before imposing an attendance order on a child.
Will the proposals really achieve their objective?
These provisions will not guarantee that every individual will attend their sentencing hearing when so ordered. However, the policy intention is that the provisions should clarify relevant existing law in this area and reinforce the expectation that individuals should attend their sentencing hearing, not least to ensure that justice is seen to be done by victims and the wider public.
The Government considers that they are also important in recognising the impact that non-attendance has on victims and their families in compounding their trauma.
The provisions are expected to take effect in 2024.
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