Guilty Plea Discounts
Anyone who is sentenced for a criminal offence on or after 1 June 2017 will be subject to new guidelines concerning the credit given for a guilty plea.
It is generally the case that a defendant who pleads guilty to an offence will be given the benefit of a reduction in sentence. This is because it saves the court time and money and also prevents victims from having to go through the ordeal of giving evidence. The reduction in sentence is a principle rather than a law and the decision to apply it is at the court's discretion. The maximum discount is one third and the current guidelines recommend that this amount should be given where the guilty plea was indicated at the first available opportunity. The 'first available opportunity' has been interpreted on a case by case basis and has generally included a guilty plea entered at the Crown Court.
The new guidelines are a lot stricter and state that a defendant is only entitled to a discount of one third if the guilty plea is 'indicated at the first stage of proceedings'. In most cases this will mean that a guilty plea has to be indicated during the first appearance at the Magistrates Court.
Quite often a defendant is not provided with a full copy of the statements and exhibits at this early stage, meaning that a plea must be indicated without seeing all of the evidence. It used to be the case that a defendant could indicate a not guilty plea at the Magistrates' Court, be sent up to the Crown Court at which stage they would receive the full case papers and be able to fully consider the evidence before making a decision to plead guilty. This would not have affected the credit for a guilty plea and the defendant would still receive a one third discount.
Under the new guidelines, this could not happen. If a defendant waits until the first appearance at the Crown Court, the maximum discount for a guilty plea will have reduced to 25%. If the guilty plea is entered any later than this, the reduction will operate on a sliding scale. A guilty plea on the day that a trial is due to begin will result in a maximum of a 10% discount, any later than that and the defendant risks not receiving any credit at all.
There is a limited exception to this rule if the court is satisfied that there were particular circumstances which reduced the defendant's understanding of the crime that was alleged.
The good news is that the discount of one third is still available even if the evidence in the case is overwhelming.
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