Proposed Changes to the Early Guilty Plea Scheme – a Help or Hindrance to the Justice System?

Written 11th February 2016 by Olliers Solicitors

Under the Early Guilty Plea Scheme, defendants are eligible for a reduction in their sentence when pleading guilty. Currently in practice defendants pleading guilty at a preliminary hearing (or PTPH) in the Crown Court will be entitled to full credit of 33%, those who plead later will get less credit ranging from 25% at a later hearing down to a reduction of 10% at the day of trial.

New Proposals – Sentencing Guidelines

Under the new proposals put forward by the Sentencing Council for consultation, a defendant must plead guilty at their very first hearing, meaning in the magistrates’ court at their first appearance, in order to benefit from the full reduction in sentence. After that the maximum reduction available would be limited to 20%.

This proposal is intended to encourage defendants to plead guilty at the earliest possible stage, the rhetoric espoused being that a defendant knows if they are guilty or not. The logic is that encouraging guilty pleas at the first appearance would lead to a reduction in court costs and an easing of the burden on victims and witnesses who do not need to worry about the sometimes daunting experience of giving evidence in court.

Criminal Defence Lawyers – Requirement to Advise

It can be suggested however that the reality of the situation is somewhat different. Not all cases are straightforward and it is not always appropriate for a client to plead guilty before more than just a summary of the evidence is served, as would be the case at the first appearance in the magistrates’ court. In a more complicated case the defendants guilt may not be immediately obvious to both the defendant and their solicitor and would require a review of the evidence in the case before a decision can be made. Pleading guilty to an offence is not something that should be taken lightly, especially not with more serious offences where a defendant can expect a significant prison sentence.

Similarly it could be argued that whilst it is commendable to work towards making the court process easier for victims and witnesses by tightening the rules around the early guilty plea scheme, it may in fact have the opposite effect. It is a fact that a significant proportion of defendants are persuaded to plead guilty at a later stage in proceedings, once all the evidence is served. This is because having reviewed the evidence with their solicitor they have decided the evidence is overwhelming and it is better to take the credit that is still on offer than to lose a trial and receive the full sentence. If the credit for guilty pleas is reduced to such a point where it is no longer an incentive to defendants, it may lead to a rise in the prevalence of an attitude of defendants that there is so little to lose in running a trial that they may as well go ahead.

This would serve to increase the amount of trials in the crown courts, thus increasing court costs and legal fees and also forcing more victims and witnesses to face the unpleasant experience of giving evidence in court

Olliers Solicitors – Specialist Criminal Defence

Written by Alex Close-Claughton. Alex is a police station accredited representative and specialises in the defence of serious crime.

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