Lucy Letby
Lucy Letby, originally from Hereford, western England, was on August 18, 2023, found guilty of the murder of seven babies and the attempted murders of six others. Image Credit: Cheshire Constabulary/AFP

London: Judges will get the power to order criminals to attend their sentencing, the UK government said Wednesday, as it also announced new legal powers for an inquiry into a serial child-killer nurse.

The move to force offenders to be in court follows recent high-profile trials in which those convicted refused to hear their sentence and statements from the victims' families.

They included nurse Lucy Letby, who declined to attend court last week when she was jailed for life for murdering seven babies and attempting to kill six other infants who were in her care.

The government had already announced an independent inquiry into her shocking case to examine how the concerns of clinicians were dealt with by managers at the Countess of Chester Hospital, in northwest England, where she worked.

But on Wednesday, Health Secretary Steve Barclay bowed to pressure and said the probe would be made statutory, giving it legal powers to compel witnesses - including both former and current medical staff - to provide evidence.

"This statutory public inquiry will aim to give the families the answers they need and ensure lessons are learned," he said.

'Coward's way out'

Letby, 33, the UK's most prolific child serial killer in modern history, was arrested after a string of baby deaths at the hospital's neonatal unit between June 2015 and June 2016.

Hospital executives have come under fire for failing to act sooner on concerns about her, which were reportedly raised by senior doctors as early as 2015.

Meanwhile, under the proposed sentencing reforms - to apply in England and Wales - judges will have the discretionary power to order criminals to attend sentencing hearings.

Custody officers will be able to use "reasonable force" to make an offender appear in the dock or by video link, the justice ministry said.

Those who continue to resist attending despite a judge's order could face an extra two years behind bars.

"It is unacceptable that some of the country's most horrendous criminals have refused to face their victims in court," Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said.

"They cannot and should not be allowed to take the coward's way out."

Sunak added that the government would submit proposals to parliament in the coming weeks, calling the move "the right thing to do".


However, some lawyers have expressed concern, citing fears that the use of force could cause injury to defendants or staff, and disrupt proceedings.

Separately, a torture expert on Wednesday urged the government to urgently review indefinite sentences imposed under a previous initiative that has now been scrapped.

Alice Jill Edwards, a special rapporteur to the UN, said nearly 2,900 prisoners were still serving such sentences, which were imposed in England and Wales from 2005 to 2012.

They were given to offenders deemed to pose a significant risk to public safety until they were no longer considered a threat.

"For many these sentences have become cruel, inhuman and degrading," she said, highlighting UK government figures from 2021 that 65 so-called Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) prisoners had killed themselves.

"They have been acknowledged by successive UK governments and even described as indefensible by a justice minister - yet they persist," she added, calling for better rehabilitation.

Edwards added that they should be used "sparingly" and "only for the most serious crimes and offenders".