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Lucy Letby's Non-Attendance at Court: To Forbid or Not To Forbid?

By Akshata Jena

On 21 August 2023, the Manchester Crown Court sentenced Lucy Letby, a neo-natal nurse, to life in prison for murdering seven babies and attempting to kill six more, marking the end of ‘one of the longest-running murder trials in recent times.’[1]

Letby refused to attend her sentencing, a move that sparked nationwide outrage against the justice system for permitting her to do so. The past year has seen several convicted murderers - including the killers of Olivia Pratt-Korbel[2] and Zara Aleena[3] - exploit the same ‘legal loophole.’[4] Currently, there are no laws that mandate offenders to appear in court during their sentencing, and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has stated that his government plans to change this status quo.[5]This new law would need careful consideration to ensure a fruitful outcome, and this article aims to discuss the motive and efficiency of such a law.

The primary cri de cœur against Letby’s absence during her sentencing was the fact that the former nurse would not have to face the impact of her crimes while the victims’ families read out their victim personal statements.[6] Such statements are important as they are considered by the judge when determining the defendant’s sentence. Moreover, they provide an opportunity for victims and their close family to express how the crime has affected them, be it physically, emotionally, or financially.[7] Therefore, Letby’s refusal to attend court and face the aftermath of her heinous actions was understandably condemned.

In light of this, a change in the law would aim to prevent offenders from committing what a parent of two of Letby’s victims called “one final act of wickedness.”[8]

However, a law forbidding non-attendance by forcing offenders to attend court would face weighty challenges.

Firstly, the use of force on defendants to ensure their attendance raises questions. According to the current Crown Prosecution Service guidelines, when the court mandates a defendant’s presence, the prison may resort to using ‘reasonable’ force to make the defendant appear in court.[9] However, the BBC correctly points out that this could lead to legal action against prison officers and is therefore a risky area that the new law would have to address.[10]

After the Zara Aleena case, then Secretary of State for Justice Dominic Raab suggested that a refusal to attend court should, at the very least, lead to an increased sentence.[11] Joshua Rozenberg KC pointed out that such an increase could be for a maximum of a year or two, and thus largely inconsequential for a defendant (such as Aleena’s murderer and Letby) facing a very long sentence for their crime(s).[12]

Furthermore, in response to a petition demanding the forced attendance of offenders, the Government noted that while the new law would allow victims a sense of closure, it also increases the possibility of a disruptive defendant causing chaos in court.[13] Joseph Kotrie-Monson points out that this behaviour usually results in more punishment, either by removal to the cells or additional prison time due to contempt of court, both of which would, again, have very little impact on someone facing a long sentence.[14]

Forbidding non-attendance at court is therefore not a straightforward task. To do so, Parliament would have to consider at length what exactly such a law aims to achieve and how apt provisions of legislation could effectively ensure these goals. The new law would be venturing into tricky territory, with difficult questions of necessity, legality, and efficiency making it an important development to follow.

[1] Josh Halliday, ‘Nurse Lucy Letby guilty of murdering seven babies at Chester hospital’ (The Guardian, 18 August 2023) <> accessed 27 August 2023 [2] Mark Brown, ‘Olivia Pratt-Korbel’s mother speaks of heartbreak after killer’s sentencing’ (The Guardian, 3 April 2023) <> accessed 27 August 2023 [3] Matthew Weaver, ‘Zara Aleena murder: Jordan McSweeney jailed for at least 38 years’ (The Guardian, 14 December 2022) <> accessed 27 August 2023 [4] Courtney Pochin, ‘Lucy Letby: Legal loophole that allowed killer to swerve sentencing and victims' families’ (The Mirror, 21 August 2023) <> accessed 27 August 2023 [5] ‘Sunak: Letby cowardly to not face victims' families in court’ (BBC News, 21 August 2023) <> accessed 27 August 2023 [6] Graeme Baker, ‘Lucy Letby: What happens next with inquiry, prison and police review’ (BBC News, 22 August 2023) <> accessed 27 August 2023 [7] Ministry of Justice, Code of Practice for Victims of Crime in England and Wales (Unnumbered Act Paper, 2020) ch 7 [8] Judith Moritz, Daniel O'Donoghue, Lauren Hirst & Monica Rimmer, ‘Mother of Lucy Letby victim says it was like a horror film’ (BBC News, 21 August 2023) <> accessed 27 August 2023 [9] ‘Defendant’s refusal to attend Court’ (The Crown Prosecution Service, 23 September 2022) <> accessed 27 August 2023 [10] Graeme Baker, ‘Lucy Letby: What happens next with inquiry, prison and police review’ (BBC News, 22 August 2023) <> accessed 27 August 2023 [11] June Kelly & Naresh Puri, ‘Zara Aleena murder: Raab seeks to force convicts to appear at sentencing’ (BBC News, 23 February 2023) <> accessed 27 August 2023 [12] Joshua Rozenberg, ‘Is Raab winding the lawyers up?’ (A Lawyer Writes, 24 February 2023) <> accessed 27 August 2023 [13] ‘Introduce new laws to force offenders to be present in court for sentencing’ <> accessed 27 August 2023 [14] Joseph Kotrie-Monson, ‘Lucy Letby Sentence: Can the law require attendance at a sentencing hearing? Writes Joseph Kotrie-Monson’ (LBC, 21 August 2023) <> accessed 27 August 2023


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