Most people are unaware there is a Court Guideline which encourages early guilty pleas and we are often asked the question “shall I plead guilty to get a reduced sentence?”.
Section 144 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 provides:
In determining what sentence to pass on a defendant who has pleaded guilty to an offence in proceedings before that Court a 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 this indication was given.
After a lengthy consultation period, the Sentencing Council issued new guidance in determining when and how a Judge should allocate a reduction to credit a Defendant pleading guilty early on in proceedings.
The new Guideline applies to Magistrates Court and Crown Court cases; it applies to any matter heard on or after 1 June 2017 regardless of the date of the alleged offence.
This new Guideline still allows up to a third reduction in any sentence if a guilty plea is proffered at the “first stage” of proceedings. Ordinarily this will mean at the first hearing in the Magistrates Court. There was some debate as to whether admissions in interviews under caution should attract the highest percentage reduction in guilty plea? The Sentencing Council steered away from this and instead directed that full and frank admissions in interviews under caution are likely to be treated as a mitigating factor once an initial starting point for a reduction in guilty plea is set by the Judge.
After the first stage of proceedings, reduction in sentence for a guilty plea decreases to a quarter.
The Sentencing Council were keen to impress that the purpose of the Guideline is to encourage those who are going to plead guilty to do so as early as possible rather than to put pressure on a Defendant to plead guilty to receive a reduction in sentence.
Clearly an early guilty plea produces benefits such as cases being dealt with quickly and efficiently in and to bring a timely closure to the case for all parties involved.
Somewhat unusually, the Sentencing Guideline makes it clear that the strength of the evidence should not be taken into account when determining the percentage reduction in guilty plea. This differs from the previous Sentencing Guideline issued in 2007. Under that Guideline, the Sentencing Judge was directed to allow his/her discretion to allocate a percentage reduction if they felt the plea had properly been entered at the “first reasonable opportunity“.
For multi million pound turnover companies and for individual Defendants potentially facing custodial sentences, a third reduction in sentence is an attractive option as it can mean hundreds of thousands of pounds of savings for a business or a suspended sentence rather than an immediate custodial sentence for an individual.
Of course there are always exceptions to the Guidelines and these are if the Court is satisfied “that there were particular circumstances which significantly reduce the Defendants ability to understand what was alleged or otherwise made it unreasonable to expect the Defendant to indicate a guilty plea sooner than was done, a reduction of a third should still be made”.
This exception is looking likely to apply to the majority of regulatory offences including complex health and safety and environmental offences, FCA offences, NCA offences, and complex finance fraud cases.
A Defendant company or individual defendant should not be penalised for not being able to indicate a plea at the first Magistrates hearing when common practice is that a very limited skeleton case summary and charge sheet have only just been served on the defence! Those of us who deal with complex regulatory offences are too well aware that the files of prosecution evidence do not usually arrive until weeks after the first Magistrates hearing.
This new Sentencing Guideline gives comfort to those representing companies and individuals in complex regulatory offences that the reduction in early guilty plea scheme can still be applied properly to those type of offences.
This article was written by associate, Kate Oliver. If you have any queries or question on this topic, please contact Kate and our experienced nationwide Regulatory Team on 0121 234 0177.