Ministers have been accused of “dragging their feet” over laws to force killers into the dock as Lucy Letby refuses to appear in court for her sentencing.
The serial killer nurse is set to be sentenced today from 10am at Manchester Crown Court, and could be handed a rare whole-life order by judge Mr Justice Goss. Only three women have ever previously received whole-life sentences in the UK – serial killers Myra Hindley, Rose West and Joanna Dennehy.
But Letby has said she will not attend Monday’s hearing, which follows her convictions for the murder of seven babies and the attempted murder of six others, prompting renewed calls for those guilty of heinous crimes to be dragged to court to face justice in person.
Justice secretary Alex Chalk reaffirmed the government’s commitment on Sunday to ensure offenders “face the music”, or face the “consequences” of not appearing in court.
A source close to Mr Chalk said: “It is a final insult to victims and their families when criminals don’t stand up to what they’ve done in court.”
But Mr Chalk would not say when a law would be brought in to compel attendance at sentencings, with the source promising it “as soon as parliamentary time allows”.
It comes as the families of Letby’s victims demand the government orders a full public inquiry into how she was able to carry out the prolonged killing spree. And senior doctors have called for hospital executives who failed to act on concerns about Letby to be investigated for corporate manslaughter and criminal negligence.
Retired consultant paediatrician Dewi Evans, who was tasked by Cheshire Police to look at a series of collapses on the neonatal unit of the Countess of Chester Hospital in 2015 and 2016, told The Observer: “I think this is a matter that demands an investigation into corporate manslaughter. The police should also investigate the [hospital] in relation to criminal negligence.”
Former justice secretary Sir Robert Buckland told The Independent Letby’s refusal to face her victims’ families as she is sentenced “added insult to the most grievous injury she has caused”.
The Tory MP called on ministers to amend a Victims and Prisoners Bill currently going through parliament to bring in the change that would force convicted killers to appear in court. And he suggested beaming the hearing into Letby’s cell using a live link, ensuring she has “nowhere to hide”.
Mr Buckland told GB News that Letby “needs to hear the victim’s personal statements as impact statements”.
Shadow justice secretary Steve Reed said it was “grossly offensive” that Letby would not appear at Monday’s hearing.
“The Conservatives have dragged their feet and have failed yet again to outline a proper timeline on when they will act,” Mr Reed said, adding that Labour would give judges the power to force offenders to court to face justice.
Labour MP Karl Turner, who sits on parliament’s justice select committee, said Letby’s refusal to attend court made her crimes “all the more cruel”. But he said a solution to the problem is “far from easy” and urged senior politicians not to “pretend otherwise”.
Mr Turner, a former shadow justice minister himself, said it is not possible to “force the guilty, dragged kicking and screaming if need be, to court”.
And he said suggestions such as additional years in prison for those who do not attend sentencing would fail those whose sentence is already forever.
Letby carried out the murderous rampage at the Countess of Chester hospital in 2015 and 2016, and her convictions make her Britain’s most prolific killer of children.
Following verdicts on the seven counts of murder and 15 counts of attempted murder she faced, she indicated she would not attend Monday’s sentencing hearing and would not follow via videolink from prison.
Thomas 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.
Olivia’s mother Cheryl Korbel called for the law to be changed to make sure criminals are forced to appear, saying Cashman’s absence was “like a kick in the teeth”.
After Letby indicated she would not attend, Labour’s Mr Reed insisted change was needed.
He added: “If the defendant doesn’t come and face justice, it’s beyond cowardly, and will have a devastating impact on the families. This is a vital part of seeing justice done.
“We called for new laws on this back in April last year – but the Conservatives have dragged their feet and have failed yet again to outline a proper timeline on when they will act.
“In government, Labour will give judges the power to force offenders to face justice in court. The families of victims deserve nothing less.”
Sir Robert said the government could amend the victims bill to introduce the change or even consider emergency legislation to push it through sooner.
“Letby’s continuing refusal to come into the dock adds insult to the most grievous injury she has caused to the families of the innocent victims,” he added.
Ellie Reeves says criminals should be “dragged kicking and screaming” into court to hear sentencing. “During a trial, the victims and their families have to sit and listen to all of the evidence. The sentencing is their opportunity for their voices to be heard.
“So it is crucial the defendant is there to hear those victim impact statements, to hear about the impact their crimes have had.
“I really do think they need to be in that courtroom to hear it. It is fundamental to our justice system that justice is not only done, but seen to be done.”
The families of Letby’s victims have joined senior doctors and MPs in demanding that the proposed inquiry is upgraded from an independent inquiry, over fears that it will lack the powers needed to unearth potential evidence of a cover-up at the Countess of Chester Hospital, which could leave open the possibility that the same thing could happen again.
Health secretary Steve Barclay announced on Friday that an independent inquiry would be held following Letby’s conviction. But he stopped short of setting up an inquiry with statutory powers, meaning witnesses will not be required by law to attend.
The Conservative chair of the Health Select Committee has warned the non-statutory inquiry will not have the power to compel witnesses and could drag on for years and “disappear down a rabbit hole”.
Mr Brine told BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House: “What I want to see to be absolutely clear is not a process that drags on for years, an inquiry that can disappear down a rabbit hole … (I want) one that is effective.
“I can’t actually see how it’s anything but helpful to ministers, to that effectiveness, for this inquiry to have everything that it needs to conduct it, including a judge.”
Mr Brine said some witnesses “may not be so willing” to co-operate with the investigation into the specific circumstances at Chester and the assessment of previous inquiry recommendations designed to prevent incidents at hospitals.
“The two things that draw them together is the need for public confidence. I can’t see how anything other than a proper judge-led statutory inquiry would do that,” he said.
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