Plead now or forever hold your peace

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18 Apr Plead now or forever hold your peace

It may appear as clear as mud but believe it or not there are current guidelines in place for early guilty pleas (EGPs), these guidelines are currently being reviewed for proposed changes by the Sentencing Council for England and Wales. The changes to the current rules on EGP’s will change the governing sentence reductions. If brought in these changes would be more burdensome for defendants than is the current case.

The Proposed Changes

Current Guideline Proposed change in draft guidelines (for individuals >18 and organisations)
One third discount for EGP recommended Maximum one third discount for EGP
Discount available if plea indicated/entered at first reasonable opportunity Discount available if plea indicated/entered at first stage of proceedings
“First reasonable opportunity” not expressly defined “First stage of proceedings” means:

Summary offences – up to and including first hearing at Magistrates’ Court

Either way offences – up to and including allocation hearing

Indictable only offences – up to and including first hearing at Crown Court

One quarter discount for later guilty pleas (after trial date set) recommended Maximum one-fifth discount for later guilty pleas:

For offences dealt with in Magistrates’ Courts – up to 14 days after the first hearing

For either way offences sent to the Crown Court for trial – up to and including the first hearing at the Crown Court

For indictable only offences – not >28 days after the prosecutor states it has complied with s3 CPIA 1996

One tenth discount for guilty plea at the door of the court/after trial begun recommended Maximum one – tenth discount for guilty plea on first day of trial and sliding scale thereafter
No exceptions expressly stipulated Five specific exceptions available (see below)

 

However like everything in life, there are exceptions being proposed alongside the changes.

Exceptions:

Importantly, five possible exceptions are proposed which may still allow offenders to claim up to the one third discount for guilty pleas entered/indicated later than the new default first stage of proceedings:

1. Further information or advice necessary before indicating plea

This exception will only be available where all three of the following conditions are satisfied:

i) Before the first stage of proceedings, the offender identified to the court/prosecutor the conduct which is admitted;

ii) insufficient information was available about the allegations to know whether an offender was guilty of the offence or not; and

iii) it was necessary for the offender to receive advice and/or see evidence to decide whether to plead guilty or not.

2. Initial details of the prosecution case (IDPC) not served before the first hearing

It should be considered carefully whether the prosecution has fully discharged its duty. Where there is doubt this should be raised very promptly. Once the IDPC has been served, the offender has only an additional 14 days grace in which to indicate plea.

3. Newton Hearings (and special reasons hearings)

Where an offender’s version of events is upheld at such hearing, then there should be no loss of EGP reduction. However, if the offender’s version of events is rejected at a Newton Hearing then the reduction which would otherwise have been available for an EGP, should normally be halved. There may be further decreases if witnesses have been called (which will often be the case).

4. Exceptionally complex and time consuming cases in the Crown Court

The draft Guideline proposes that “complex and time consuming” cases will be those cases where it was likely the case would have involved very substantial amounts of court time (“many months”) and/or number of witnesses (“dozens”) giving evidence. This exception is potentially highly relevant to cases where the law and technical material is complex and voluminous, and additionally, the area of law relatively unfamiliar – this is often the case with complex environment and health & safety offences (the Council also gives the example of a complex fraud trial). However, the Council considers that this exception will apply only rarely.

5. Offender convicted of a lesser or different offence

This exception is provided to avoid an offender being unfairly prejudiced where the prosecution changes the charge. However it will be available only where the offender made an unequivocal indication of a guilty plea to the relevant lesser/different offence.

So what is the verdict, do we think the changes will make a huge difference to current early guilty pleas? it will be interesting to see how, if at all, the Scottish Courts will interpret these guidelines.……… the verdict is out. Watch this space.