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Judges are to be given powers to force offenders to attend sentencing hearings — and will be able to jail criminals for longer if they refuse to appear.

The government said on Wednesday that the reforms would allow judges to force perpetrators to appear in the dock and attend their sentencing hearings.

The changes come after the judge who sentenced convicted child killer Lucy Letby was unable to make the former nurse attend her sentencing hearing. Families of some of the seven babies Letby murdered while working as a nurse at the Countess of Chester Hospital between June 2015 and June 2016 had to address their harrowing victim impact statements to an empty dock.

Mr Justice James Goss told Manchester crown court that Letby had committed a “cruel, calculated and cynical campaign of child murder”. But he was unable to force her to attend the hearing and instead directed that Letby be given a transcript of his remarks and copies of the impact statements.

The Letby sentencing stoked a public row about convicted criminals not showing up at their public sentencing hearings.

The government said on Wednesday that the power of custody officers to use reasonable force to make criminals appear in the dock or via video link would be enshrined in law, meaning every effort would be made to see justice delivered for victims and their families.

If a criminal continues to resist attending their sentencing despite a judge’s order, they will face an extra two years behind bars. 

This new penalty will apply in cases where the maximum sentence is life imprisonment, including serious sexual or violent crimes such as murder, rape and grievous bodily harm with intent. Judges will have the discretion to use the powers as they see fit.

Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, said: “It is unacceptable that some of the country’s most horrendous criminals have refused to face their victims in court. They cannot and should not be allowed to take the coward’s way out.”

Alex Chalk KC, lord chancellor and secretary of state for justice, said each time an offender refused to appear in the dock was “another insult to their victims and their families”.

The government said the legislation would be introduced “in due course” but it did not give further details on timetable.

Claire Waxman, London Victims’ Commissioner, who works on behalf of victims, said that “while this is a positive step, government must be wary of the unintended consequences of using force to ensure attendance at hearings, so as to not make sentencing and even more distressing experience for victims”.

However, Jessica Maguire, an associate at law firm Corker Binning, said the threat of extra jail time would not solve the issue for serious offenders who already face mandatory life sentences. She said the threat of an additional two years was unlikely to act as a deterrent.

“Where is the line to be drawn? What if defendants attend court for sentencing but close their ears and eyes, turn their back on the court or otherwise disrupt the sentencing process?” Maguire asked.

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