The Sentencing Council has issued a new Definitive Guideline on sentence reductions where defendants enter a guilty plea in criminal cases. The guideline comes into effect on 1 June 2017 with the objective of encouraging defendants who are going to plead guilty to do so as early as possible in the process by reducing the amount of credit given for guilty plea as the case proceeds.
Pre-guideline, discounts for early guilty pleas were typically in the region of one third of a sentence providing the defendant pleaded guilty “at the earliest reasonable opportunity”. There was, however, some latitude as to what was actually meant by “earliest reasonable opportunity” and defendants could still be given credit at an advanced stage in proceedings. Under the new guideline, the maximum one third reduction will only be available at the first stage of proceedings; thereafter the discount will decrease on a sliding scale (subject to very limited exceptions). The guideline makes clear that the first stage will normally be the first hearing at which a plea or indication of a plea is sought and recorded by the court, normally the Magistrates’ Court..
After the “first stage” of proceedings, the maximum level of reduction will be one quarter of the appropriate sentence. The guideline says that this discount should be further reduced to one tenth as of the first day of trial, having regard to when a guilty plea is indicated relative to the progress of the case and the trial date. If the plea is withheld until trial itself, the court may choose to reduce further, even down to zero in appropriate cases.
The new guideline does provide for two limited exceptions to the new rules.
Where the sentencing court is satisfied that circumstances significantly reduced the defendant’s ability to understand the charges, or made it unreasonable to expect an earlier guilty plea was, a reduction of one third should still be made. The guideline however charges courts to distinguish between scenarios where defendants genuinely need advice or sight of the evidence to submit a plea, and where a defendant merely delays a plea in order to assess the strength of the case against it.
The second exception concerns ‘Newton’ hearings, where the defendant pleads guilty but disputes the facts of the case (common, for instance, in health and safety claims). The guideline provides that where the defendant’s version of events is rejected, any reduction that would have been given for an early guilty plea should be halved. Where witnesses are called as part of the hearing, it may be appropriate for the discount to be decreased further.
These new guidelines are designed to incentivise early pleas thereby freeing up police, prosecutor and court time, saving public money and sparing victims and witnesses the stress of trial. With tight timetables and limited exceptions, defendants will need to consider the case against them at the earliest possible stage and seek the necessary advice, in order to maximise credit for a guilty plea. This may be easier said than done in complex cases and it will be interesting to see how the court’s apply the exceptions in these cases.