Criminals will be forced into dock to face justice after Lucy Letby took ‘coward’s way out’

Laws are being rolled out in wake of serial killer’s conviction for murdering seven babies and attempted murder of six others

Archie Mitchell,Adam Forrest
Wednesday 30 August 2023 20:35 BST
Lucy Letby: Timeline of nurse who murdered seven babies

Criminals will be forced into the dock to hear their sentence, under new laws to be rolled out after the conviction of Britain’s most prolific child killer, Lucy Letby.

Judges will be given the power to order offenders into court, including by force if necessary, the Ministry of Justice said.

The serial killer neonatal nurse, 33, was given a whole life sentence for the murder of seven babies and the attempted murder of six others between 2015 and 2016, earlier this month.

But she refused to attend her sentencing, prompting an outcry and fresh calls for ministers to speed up a promised change in the law.

Announcing the reform on Wednesday, Rishi Sunak said it was “unacceptable” some of the country’s most horrendous criminals refused to face their victims in court.

“They cannot and should not be allowed to take the coward’s way out,” the prime minister said.

It comes as health secretary Steve Barclay confirmed that the inquiry into how Letby was able to go on a prolonged killing spree would be upgraded to a statutory one. The move will give it legal powers to force witnesses, including staff at the Countess of Chester Hospital where she worked, to give evidence under oath.

The decision to upgrade the inquiry was made after talks with the victims’ families who had raised concerns the inquiry would lack the “teeth” needed to expose a possible NHS cover-up.

Under the new plans to force criminals into the dock, those who refuse to attend could have an extra two years added to their sentence.

The announcement has been hailed by victims and campaigners, including the mother of nine-year-old shooting victim Olivia Pratt-Korbel, whose killer Thomas Cashman also refused to face his victims’ family in court.

Former Labour home secretary Jack Straw also backed the move. “It’s a sensible change,” he told The Independent. “There will be practical issues if someone refuses, but it’s right to give judges greater power to try to enforce appearance. Very few prisoners will want to add two years to their sentence.”

Court drawing by Elizabeth Cook of empty chairs in court after nurse Lucy Letby refused to attend
Court drawing by Elizabeth Cook of empty chairs in court after nurse Lucy Letby refused to attend (PA)

But critics warned the issue was “complex” and could, in the end, cause more distress for grieving families.

Justice secretary Alex Chalk told ITV News the law was being changed to ensure “natural justice, because for many victims, they will never be able to sleep peacefully again because their lives have been shattered by what the offender has done”.

He added: “It is only right that, as the offender is trying to get to sleep, they hear society’s condemnation expressed through the sentencing remarks of the judge ringing through their ears.”

The MoJ said that the law will be “set out in due course”, though no firm timeline was given. But critics of the idea say it is an unworkable policy, as there is “no incentive” for those with a whole-life tariff to appear in the dock if they do not want to.

Hospital staff 'devastated' over Lucy Letby murders, medical director says

Labour MP and former shadow justice secretary Karl Turner told The Independent: “It is all too tempting in these tragic cases for politicians to promise to force the guilty, dragged kicking and screaming if need be, to court.

“But to make such promises that are not, in reality, actually possible to deliver, may just cause further suffering to victims of crimes.”

He added: “Politicians pretending otherwise is, in my view, very unwise because it risks adding insult to those already badly injured.”

Letby’s refusal to turn up for sentencing followed former justice secretary Dominic Raab’s promise to act after the non-attendance of the killers of schoolgirl Olivia Pratt-Korbel, Zara Aleena and Sabina Nessa.

Lucy Letby has begun her whole-life prison sentence
Lucy Letby has begun her whole-life prison sentence (PA)

Cashman was jailed for life with a minimum term of 42 years for fatally shooting nine-year-old Olivia at her home in Dovecot, Liverpool, while pursuing a fellow drug dealer.

Sex attacker Jordan McSweeney murdered 35-year-old law graduate Ms Aleena as she walked home in Ilford, east London, and was jailed for life with a minimum term of 38 years.

Koci Selamaj received life with at least 36 years behind bars for murdering primary school teacher Ms Nessa after travelling to London to carry out an attack on a random woman.

All refused to appear in court for sentencing, with their punishments being handed down in their absence.

Rishi Sunak says criminals won’t be allowed to ‘take the coward’s way out’
Rishi Sunak says criminals won’t be allowed to ‘take the coward’s way out’ (PA)

Labour criticised the government for yet again failing to set out a timeline of when the law change would take effect.

Steve Reed, Labour’s shadow justice secretary, said the opposition had called for new laws to force criminals to attend sentencing back in April 2022 – claiming the Tories had “dragged their feet”.

He said: “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.”

Calling it “disrespectful and grossly offensive” for criminals to avoid hearings, Mr Reed added: “In government, Labour will give judges the power to force offenders to face justice in court. The families of victims deserve nothing less.”

However, Labour has previously said it would back such a change, meaning the reforms announced by Mr Sunak today could be passed into law relatively quickly.

Olivia’s mother Cheryl Korbel had also called for the law to be changed, saying Cashman’s absence was “like a kick in the teeth”.

Judges will have the discretion to use the powers as they see fit to ensure justice is done.

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