What is credit for a guilty plea?

Credit for guilty pleas at the Magistrates & Crown courts for criminal offences is a long established principle where Courts allow a reduction in the sentence that would normally be imposed if a defendant pleads guilty rather than having a trial.

It was written into the statue books by the Criminal Justice Act 2003. Section 144 of that Act states that In determining what sentence to pass on an offender who has pleaded guilty to an offence, the court must take into account the stage in the proceedings for the offence at which the offender indicated his intention to plead guilty, and the circumstances in which the indication was given.

This was reinforced by the Sections 125(1) of the more recent Coroners and Justice Act 2009 which stipulates that any Court must follow any sentencing guidelines unless it would not be in the public interest to do so.

Those guidelines are created by the Sentencing Council and recognise that it is the right of any defendant to plead not guilty and require the prosecution to prove its case, but that an acceptance of guilt usually reduces the impact on victims of crimes, saves them and other witnesses from having to give evidence and public time and money on investigations and trials. The earlier the plea is indicated to the court the greater the above benefits are.

How much discount should you receive for a guilty plea?

The guidelines state that a reduction of one-third (33%) should apply if the plea is indicated at the first stage of proceedings which is normally the first hearing, unless one of the exceptions applies, for example where there is a mandatory minimum sentence of imprisonment and the effect of the reduction would be to reduce it below the minimum term.

Can I see the evidence before entering a guilty plea, will this lessen any reduction?

The key principles of the guidelines state that “a guilty person is entitled not to admit the offence and to put the prosecution to proof of its case” and in cases where the court is satisfied that there were “particular circumstances which significantly reduced the defendant’s ability to understand what was alleged” or “made it unreasonable to expect the defendant to indicate a guilty plea sooner” then a reduction of one-third should still be made.

But, the guidelines also warn that courts will have to distinguish cases where it is necessary for the accused, “To receive advice and/or have sight of evidence in order to understand whether [they are] in fact and law guilty of the offence(s) charged” and cases where an accused delays, “guilty plea(s) in order to assess the strength of the prosecution evidence and the prospects of conviction or acquittal”.

What if a guilty plea is entered later, what discount is given?

The reduction applied to guilty pleas is on a sliding scale. Those who enter a guilty plea after the first stage are entitled to a discount of one-quarter (25%) and a guilty plea on the first day of trial will result in a discount of one-tenth (10%). It is for the Court to determine where on the scale the case falls, and what discount should apply if a defendant enters a plea in between these two points. Where a defendant maintains a not guilty plea and is convicted at trial no discount is allowed.

Can you ever get more than a third discount for a guilty plea?

The short answer is no, a discount of more than a third cannot be applied even where an intention to plead guilty was indicated before the first stage of the proceedings for instance where a suspected admitted the involvement in an offence prior to being charged such as in an interview by the police. This issue was considered by the Court of Appeal in a case of Regina -v- Caley and others where the court said that although a higher discount could not apply, the fact that a defendant had admitted the offence earlier could provide further mitigation which the courts could rightly treat “as a factor tending towards downwards adjustment to the sentence passed…before adjustment for plea of guilty”. This would be particularly relevant where defendants volunteered an admission when the police did not have sufficient evidence for a conviction or where by admitting what he or she did, spared others who would otherwise have come under suspicion. At the other end of the scale a defendant who was confronted with evidence which was in practice unanswerable had little, by way of mitigation.

The issue of credit for a guilty plea was also argued at the Court of Appeal in July 2019 in the case of R -v- Ryan Joshua Ball. Ball had appeared at the Magistrates and not indicated any plea and his case had been sent to the Crown Court. At a first hearing at the Crown Court, guilty pleas were indicated, but a basis of plea could not be signed and the case was adjourned, at the second hearing the Crown asked for an adjournment to consider the indictment and basis of plea, the defendant ultimately entered his plea at the third hearing in the Crown Court. He was later sentenced by the Judge who commented “You have spared us a trial and I have readily reduced the total sentence that I proposed to pass on you by 20 per cent”. The Court of Appeal concluded that the Judge was wrong, the law was clear it was not relevant when the defendant entered his plea “all that is required from the Appellant in order to be eligible for the reduction is the giving of an indication of plea”

How can we help?

Burton Copeland has over 35 years’ experience in representing suspects charged with all types of Criminal Offences before the courts, whether you need advice on what discount should apply in your case or advice as to whether in fact you are guilty of an offence, our team of experienced lawyers can help so please contact us today.