The Sentencing Guideline Council's Consultation on proposals to reduce credit for guilty pleas is one of the most important developments affecting practising criminal defence lawyers for some time.
Presently the law says that a defendant who pleads guilty at the “first reasonable opportunity” is entitled to a one-third reduction (“credit”) against any sentence they would receive after a contested trial. This is an incentive for defendants aware of their guilt to co-operate with the authorities. It means that witnesses are not required to attend proceedings and saves the courts and the Prosecution time and money.
At the moment, the courts have some flexibility in deciding when the “first reasonable opportunity” arises and the maximum level of credit should be allowed for a plea. Pleas need not always be tendered at a first hearing to obtain full credit.
Under new proposed guidelines, Defendants would only qualify for a maximum reduction in limited circumstances – specifically, only if a guilty plea was tendered at the first available opportunity i.e. at the first time they are asked to enter a plea. This will be the first hearing in the Magistrates court for a summary only or either-way offence and the first hearing in the Crown Court in indictable only cases (which will be the new Pre Trial Preparation Hearing (“PTPH”). The maximum reduction will not be available otherwise.
Where a defendant delays entering a plea a sliding scale applies –
- 1/5th or 20% will be allowed if the plea is entered 14 days after the first hearing in the magistrates Court in summary only and either-way cases kept in the Magistrates Court, at the new PTPH in either-way cases sent to the Crown Court, or 28 days after initial disclosure is made in indictable only cases (currently the maximum is 25%).
- 10% for pleas entered on day one of a trial
- O% for pleas entered part way through a trial
The justification for these changes put forward by the SGC is that the new guidelines will improve clarity and consistency in the application of guilty plea reductions.
Commenting on these changes, Berkeley Sahota principal Roger Sahota said that:-
“Our experience suggests that there are many good reasons why defendants may be justified in delaying entering guilty pleas, particularly where prosecuting agencies fail to meet their disclosure obligations. It must also be a concern that innocent or vulnerable accused may face undue pressure to plead guilty if these proposals are adopted. These plans reflect a worrying trend in the law to tie the hands of Judges in sentencing and limit the scope of their discretion. In our view decisions on credit for pleas are best left to Judges to determine on a case by case basis.”
The 12 week consultation began on the 11th February and will close on the 5th May 2016.
Read more about it here:-