UK

Chalk says he is committed to law change to make offenders attend sentencing

Secretary of State for Justice Alex Chalk (Aaron Chown/PA)
Secretary of State for Justice Alex Chalk (Aaron Chown/PA)

The Government is “committed to bringing forward legislation” to enable offenders to be compelled to attend their sentencing hearings, Justice Secretary Alex Chalk has said.

His predecessor, Dominic Raab, had when he was justice secretary committed to preventing those convicted of the most serious crimes from refusing to appear at their sentencing.

Mr Raab had promised to act while under pressure over the killers of nine-year-old Olivia Pratt-Korbel, Zara Aleena and Sabina Nessa.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said last month that the commitment made during Mr Raab’s tenure remains “in place”, but refused to say whether the legislation will be introduced before the next general election, expected in 2024.

Secretary of State for Justice Alex Chalk
Secretary of State for Justice Alex Chalk has said support for the legislation has cross-party support (James Manning/PA)

On Tuesday, Mr Chalk, who took over as Justice Secretary in April, reaffirmed his department’s commitment, but did not clarify timescales for any changes to the law.

Labour is calling for him to act “urgently”, and campaigners are pressing the Government to present options for legal changes before the end of the current parliamentary session in the autumn.

Speaking at justice questions in the House of Commons, Mr Chalk said: “We are committed to bringing forward legislation to enable offenders to be compelled to attend their sentencing hearings.”

He said offenders whose crimes “shatter families” should be required to “face the consequences of their actions and hear society’s condemnation expressed through the sentencing remarks of the judge”.

UK Parliament portraits
Ian Byrne asked why the changes could not be brought in through the Victims and Prisoners Bill (David Woolfall/UK Parliament/PA)

Labour MP Ian Byrne (Liverpool, West Derby) referenced his early day motion on the impact of non-attendance by an offender on bereaved families, and which calls for legislative options to be presented to Parliament before the end of the current parliamentary session in the autumn.

He asked why the changes could not be brought in through the Victims and Prisoners Bill.

Mr Chalk said he recognised families feel “pain” and “insult” when the “cowardly dependent refuses to attend court”.

“He will understand there are issues of scope and all sorts of things as to whether legislative measures can be included in certain bills. But of course I will be happy to discuss it with him,” the Justice Secretary said.

He added: “The central point however is I think there is a cross-party belief that there needs to be some legislative progress – we’re committed to that as well.”

Labour shadow justice minister Ellie Reeves said: “The Government has had 13 years to compel criminals to attend court to hear their sentences.

“Their failure to do so has meant that in the last year alone the killers of Olivia Pratt-Korbel, Zara Aleena and Sabina Nessa have all avoided hearing their sentences and avoided hearing the impact their callous crime has had on the families left behind.

“So will the Government urgently make this simple change and stop cowardly offenders from evading their sentence hearings?”

Zara Aleena death
The family of Zara Aleena have called for offenders to be compelled to attend sentencing hearings (Family Handout/PA)

Mr Chalk said: “What concerns me, frankly, is that one defendant’s actions could then be copied by others who take the view that this is somehow a way of getting away from the consequences of their actions.”

He added: “I could equally make the point that pre-2010, the legislation wasn’t changed then.”

The Justice Secretary said that he wants to know that when offenders are “sitting in the cells trying to get to sleep” that “ringing in their ears are those words of condemnation from the judge, because there are victims who find it hard ever to recover, why should that defendant ever have to sleep soundly in their bed”.

Thomas Cashman was jailed for life imprisonment with a minimum term of 42 years for fatally shooting Olivia at her home in Dovecot, Liverpool, while pursuing a fellow drug dealer.

Sex attacker Jordan McSweeney murdered 35-year-old law graduate Ms Aleena as she walked home in Ilford, east London, and was jailed for life with a minimum term of 38 years.

Koci Selamaj received life with at least 36 years for murdering primary school teacher Ms Nessa after travelling to London to carry out an attack on a random woman.

Each of the men refused to appear in court for sentencing, with the judgments being handed down in their absence.

Olivia’s mother Cheryl Korbel has called for the law to be changed to ensure criminals are in court for sentencing, saying Cashman’s absence was “like a kick in the teeth”.