The scheme for dealing with certain Crown Court cases much more quickly has been extended to cover Manchester and Bolton Crown Courts.
Early Guilty Plea Scheme
The Early Guilty Plea Scheme is designed to ensure that where somebody is to plead guilty in the Crown Court, the case is dealt with as promptly as possible. It is intended that these cases will be identified at an early stage in the court process and then be listed in the Crown Court within 21 days of the matter being committed from the Magistrates Court.
A single Crown Court hearing will take place dealing with both plea and sentence. Where appropriate, the Probation Service will have prepared a report for the Crown Court hearing date so that an adjournment can be avoided.
A version of this scheme has operated in a number of Crown Courts including Birmingham, Bristol and Liverpool. It has now been introduced at Manchester Crown Court, including cases at both Crown Square and Minshull Street, and Bolton Crown Court.
Clearly the aims of the scheme are laudable. The prompt and effective disposal of cases in the Crown Court may benefit victims, potential witnesses and defendants. Furthermore, if these cases are resolved at an earlier stage, resources within the Criminal Justice System may be better deployed.
However, there are concerns. The introduction of the scheme places significant burden upon the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure that cases are rigorously reviewed at an early stage and papers are served upon the Defence far earlier than has been the case. Despite this, the CPS have been allocated no extra resources.
For the Defence, there will now be an expectation that, in some cases, preparation is completed far more quickly. The maximum credit for entering a guilty plea in relevant cases will only be given if that plea is entered at the Early Guilty Plea hearing at the Crown Court. Defendants will, therefore, need to be fully advised at a very early stage, and often in serious matters, as to whether to enter a guilty plea. This is at a time when the fee that was paid to Solicitors for representing and advising defendants in the Magistrates Court, as their case progresses to the Crown Court, had been abolished.
The scheme commenced in Manchester and Bolton at the end of April as an extension of the original pilot. The effectiveness of the scheme in Greater Manchester will no doubt inform any decision as to whether the scheme is to be implemented throughout the country.