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The devil is in the detail. Hollow, unenforceable policy is not the key to long-term success

The haste with which proposals were rushed through to compel prisoners to attend sentencing in the light of Lucy Letby's cowardly refusal, is indicative of modern politics, where soundbites and slogans are prioritised over serious policy.

The case of Lucy Letby has shone a light on the way in which justice is delivered to those affected by the most heinous of crimes. Her refusal to attend her sentencing has accelerated exponentially the growing movement to address the cowardice that sees criminals evade facing those they have wronged. This resulted in the Ministry of Justice announcing proposals to provide Judges with new powers to compel attendance, giving families and those involved the opportunity to face the perpetrator and let them know the impact of their actions. Yet the hasty nature in which proposals were delivered in the light of heavy public emotion poses the bigger question: what do we expect of lawmakers and how important is detail in policy formulation?

Lucy Letby of course is not the first high-profile criminal to refuse to attend sentencing in recent years. The killers of Zara Aleena and 9 year old Olivia Pratt-Korbel also refused to grant the families of their victims the opportunity to confront them and explain the impact of their crimes. Yet it was Letby’s refusal to attend sentencing that firmly set the political wheels in motion, the depravity of her crimes causing a once in a generation sense of national outrage and disgust.

On the surface, it is hard to disagree with the sentiment of forced attendance. Letby deserves everything coming to her and this piece does not seek to support her right to refuse.

Olivia Pratt-Korbel was gunned down in her home. The man convicted of her murder refused to attend his sentencing. Photo Credit: Facebook

The problem, however, is that whilst in theory the proposals are a no-brainer, the reality is much different. And as both sides of the political divide clamoured to gain their footing on the moral high ground in the wake of the guilty verdict, little thought was given to the practicalities of forced attendance.

To illustrate the point, let us imagine that judges had been granted the powers prior to Letby’s sentencing. How many guards would have been required to physically escort Letby to the dock? In the wake of public sector cuts over the last decade, prison officers are not an infinite resource (a point illustrated perfectly by the escape of Daniel Khalife). If for arguments sake you require double the amount of prison officers, these would be allocated from another duty, delaying the attendance in court of another prisoner and as a result, adding to a backlog that is already putting significant strain on the judiciary.

Let us extend the hypothetical scenario one step further and imagine that the prisoner is a violent offender with potential to cause physical harm to prison officers. What would be the impact on families in the viewing gallery as they watch the spectacle of officers in riot gear wrestle the prisoner into the dock?

We can also safely assume those convicted of the most serious crimes possess little compassion for the feelings of the victim’s family. So once the prisoner who does not want to attend is forced into the dock, how is he/she kept there? Are they restrained to the chair? How would officers ensure that the prisoner is unable to verbally disrupt proceedings and make a mockery of the legal process? In the pursuit of trying to provide families with justice, are we putting them in a position to hear the most vile things said about their loved one’s final minutes?

And if even after taking the above into consideration, we still press ahead with forcing through the proposals and putting prison officers into this position, has thought been given to backlash from unions? Given the Government’s recent history in Union negotiations, are we confident that an agreement would be made or is it more likely that it would lead to strikes and increased resignations?

Finally, there is the obvious point that the deterrent of extra prison time for those who do not appear is insignificant in the types of crimes that inspired the awarding of new powers. Given that Letby was all but guaranteed to receive a whole-life tariff, the threat of extra years becomes meaningless.


So why introduce powers that you know will be difficult if not impossible to enforce? Put simply, because it appeases an electorate who want to see it happen and it is an easier path to tread than to attempt to explain the many complex reasons why it can’t. But if the role of lawmakers is simply to “give the people what they want” then what is the point of having elected officials whose very job is to take complicated issues and make rational and deliverable laws? And if there is an unwillingness to delve into the details of a relatively minor policy decision, what does that say about Government’s preparedness to face the challenges of complex issues such as climate change and AI?

It is fair to say that giving Judges at least the option of compelling attendance can only be a good thing. That it is worth having in the back pocket and does no harm. That might be true and there may well be cases where criminals looking at 8-10 years might be forced to attend when the prospect of an extra year inside is threatened. But that is not how this law was designed and sold. In the words of the Prime Minister, it was designed to ensure killers like Letby cannot refuse to attend and these powers do not begin to address that issue. On a bigger scale, it is a symptom of our recent politics where it is now commonplace to make policy announcements and laws without having investigated the basic principles their feasability.

Take Boris Johnson’s oven-ready Brexit deal which turned out that the ingredients had not even been bought. Look at Suella Braverman’s Rwanda policy which had not addressed the small issue of how it was going to circumnavigate international law. Or even look at your recent energy bill to see the effects of grand announcements without substance caused by Liz Truss’ mini-budget that promised unaffordable tax-cuts and sent the financial markets into a state of blind panic. This is not an issue reserved for the Conservative Government and similar difficulties were experienced by Labour’s ban on foxhunting that when introduced was low on detail. But it is an issue that has become more prevalent as our national politics has declined towards populism and politicians attempts to hide behind 3-word slogans and emotional rhetoric.

This type of short-termism appeasement can occasionally work and when used sparingly be a popular tool. But when used regularly, the novelty quickly wears off and people wise up to the false promises that quickly fizzle into nothingness. Until our elected leaders have the personal integrity and the professional bravery to rise above popular emotion and to critically analyse information to form mature, sensible policy, then I am afraid, we will fail to meet the challenges of the future.

X: @ConorWilson2


Insta: @conorwilsonwrites

Featured Image: Facebook


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