A law allowing judges to force convicted criminals to be in court for their sentencing will be in the King’s Speech, the Justice Secretary has indicated.
Alex Chalk said that, following conversations with the judiciary, it had been decided that it will be left to judges’ discretion as to when a defendant should be compelled to attend.
Parliament will be prorogued ahead of the King’s Speech on November 7, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Government set to use the monarch’s address to lay out its plans ahead of a likely election next year.
Mr Chalk, giving evidence to the Lords Justice and Home Affairs Committee about proposals to force criminals to be physically present for sentencing hearings, said “we will legislate in the coming session and we will get on the statute before the general election”.
The Cabinet minister had vowed to look at changing the law after a number of high-profile murderers opted against returning to the dock to hear their judge’s sentencing remarks, including the killers of Olivia Pratt-Korbel, Zara Aleena and Sabina Nessa.
Calls to update legislation intensified when baby murderer Lucy Letby refused to come up from her cell in August.
Mr Justice Goss sentenced Letby to a whole life order in her absence after jurors convicted her of the murders of seven babies and the attempted murders of six others at the Countess of Chester Hospital’s neonatal unit in 2015 and 2016.
The judge said the 33-year-old, the most prolific child serial killer in modern British history, would spend the rest of her life in jail for her “cruel, calculated and cynical campaign” at the hospital where she worked.
The Justice Secretary told peers on Wednesday that there was “proper public interest” in strengthening the law so that “those who have shattered lives, betrayed trust and destroyed families should be in court to hear society’s condemnation, expressed through the sentencing remarks of the judge”.
He said the judge in charge of proceedings should decide whether it is appropriate to have the convicted criminal physically present.
Recalling the 2013 trial at the Old Bailey of Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, the Islamist killers of Fusilier Lee Rigby, Mr Chalk said there was concern at the time “about some people seeking to use the sentencing hearing as a propaganda exercise”.
The senior Conservative continued: “We want to make sure that the sentencing judge, who understands the dynamics of what has taken place in that courtroom – how the defendant has behaved, how the families’ concerns need to be properly accounted for – we think it is for the sentencing judge to ultimately make that call as to whether the person should be in court.
“But equally, we want there to be no ambiguity.
“If the judge, in the exercise of his or her discretion thinks that person should be in court as a matter of basic natural justice, then he or she should attend.
“And we cannot have a situation where you’ve got the likes of Thomas Cashman, who you will recall the Olivia Pratt-Korbel case, and other cases – the killer of Zara Aleena – saying, ‘I’m not turning up’ as a matter of choice.
“We want to ensure that after the verdict of the jury, as that person is sitting down in the cells and speaking to their brief, saying ‘Well, do I have to turn up for the sentencing hearing?’, that brief should be saying to them, ‘Yes, you should, yes, you must. That is the law of the land and the judges made that order’.”
Asked whether there would be any consultation with the judiciary ahead of the proposals being introduced, the Justice Secretary said he had “calibrated” the change to ensure judges were in control of what happened in their courtrooms following conversations with the profession.
“In other words, not to make it an automatic, mandatory, in all circumstances a requirement to attend reflects the fact that I had these conversations with the judiciary and I have confidence in their ability to do what is right on the facts of the case in front of them,” he said.