The current position is that the courts can require that a defendant held on remand attends their sentence hearing, but they cannot force them to do so. Where a defendant is likely to be disruptive in court or where taking action to ensure that they attend would cause delays, it can be in the best interests of justice and victims to proceed in their absence. However, I fully appreciate that, in other circumstances, a defendant’s absence can cause anger and upset for victims and their families, and we are actively considering what can be done to address this.
It is important for public confidence that justice is seen to be done. When defendants in murder, rape and other serious cases hide in their cells and fail to appear for sentencing, they are effectively abusing their victim and the victim’s family once again. So I welcome the work that my hon. Friend is doing on this issue. May I encourage him to look at giving judges the power to increase custodial sentences in such circumstances?
My hon. Friend makes a really important point: justice being seen to be done is a key principle of our case law system. I am sure we all agree that a defendant should be brought before the court to face the consequences of their crime. Of course, one case in particular comes to mind. Sabina Nessa’s family wanted Koci Selamaj to be present to hear their victim impact statement, so that they could convey the hurt that he caused. In that case, the sentencing judge referred to the defendant’s actions as “cowardly…refusals” to attend.
However, I have to stress that, although defendants can be punished for refusing a prison order to attend court, they cannot be forced to attend. As I say, it is important to recognise that, although the presence of the defendant may be a comfort to some victims, there will be circumstances in which a defendant’s behaviour is distressing to victims and their families. For that reason, we have to take a balanced approach but, as I say, we are looking at what can be done. One option could be to make it a statutory aggravating factor.
When Sabina Nessa’s killer did not turn up to court to hear his sentence, his cowardice caused further unimaginable hurt to her family. Anisha Vidal-Garner was killed by a hit-and-run driver; when he stayed in his cell during sentencing, he avoided listening to the powerful victim impact statements from her family. This soft-on-crime, tough-on-victims Government have had 12 years to compel criminals to attend court to hear their sentences. Labour has been calling for it; where is the action? Why is it taking so long to get progress on this issue?
The hon. Lady knows that these are primarily matters of judicial responsibility. We have to ensure that whatever measures we take can work in practice in our courts, with the right balance being struck. She says we are soft on crime; I remind her that we recently received Royal Assent for an Act that will ensure that serious violent and sexual offenders will serve longer in prison so that we keep our streets safe. Labour voted against that. That tells us one simple message: when it comes to the big calls on law and order and keeping this country safe, the Labour party still cannot be trusted.