There has been a lot of coverage in recent weeks of the question of whether offenders should be compelled to attend their own sentencing hearings. This has come to the top of the political and news agenda recently following among others the horrific cases of Lucy Letby and Thomas Cashman, both of them convicted murderers who refused to attend court to hear their sentences imposed.
The public outrage at those who commit such awful crimes being able to avoid their sentencing hearings is easy to understand. It is common practice in such cases for victim impact statements to be read out at a sentencing hearing, and for sentencing remarks to be made by the Judge. It is a natural human response to want the perpetrators of these crimes to have to face up to the impact of what they have done, to stand in the dock and listen to what is said at these hearings. The strength of the public feeling has been reflected in the response of the Westminster Government, which has announced just weeks after Letby’s sentencing that laws will be introduced to force offenders to attend their sentencing hearings.
Any laws introduced by Westminster on such a matter would only apply to criminal courts in England. The criminal legal system in Scotland is completely separate and is governed by entirely different laws. However, it is easy to imagine that the Scottish Government might follow suit and respond to the public outcry about these cases by considering similar changes.
A sensible course of action?
I would urge caution and a degree of cynicism in response to these proposed law changes. Despite what the coverage of these cases might suggest, it is rare for an accused person to refuse to attend for sentencing. And in the cases where it might arise, I am far from convinced that any proposals to change the laws would be effective or even workable. It may be an easy win with the public for politicians to promise that offenders will be forced to attend court. But what would that involve? An offender being dragged kicking and screaming by custody staff from the cells up to the dock? And is it realistic to expect that anyone forced into court in those circumstances is then going to sit silently in the dock to await his or her fate?
One proposal is for an additional period of imprisonment to be imposed on an offender who refuses to attend court in breach of these new rules. But these situations are only likely to arise in the most serious of cases, where the convicted person knows he or she is going to receive a very lengthy prison sentence. It seems unlikely that an additional two years in prison is going to seem like much to worry about to a prisoner facing a life sentence with a minimum term of 42 years, as Thomas Cashman received, or even a whole life sentence like Lucy Letby.
Sentencing hearings should be for victims
On one view, the sentencing stage of the case should be as much about the victims of crime as the offender. The offender is made subject to the sentence no matter whether he or she is in court to hear it. But for the victims or their families it is an important opportunity to have their accounts of the impact of such awful crimes made known, and for them to hear the sentence imposed. Forcing an unwilling convicted murderer into the dock for the hearing is going to add nothing to that experience, and may very well make a mockery of such a sombre and important hearing. An easy win for politicians, maybe, but not an easy fix for victims.