2nd April 2019

HMCTS has announced a ‘crack down scheme’ on guilty pleas on the day of trial in the Magistrates Court. The scheme will operate in all courts in the Thames Valley area and includes a number of steps to encourage those accused of criminal offences to plead guilty at an earlier stage in proceedings. One very concerning step is a new requirement on the Defendant and their representatives to explain in open court why a guilty plea was not entered sooner.

But is this lawful?

There are many reasons that someone accused of a criminal offence may plead not guilty at the outset of the case and change their plea to guilty at a later stage. For example, evidence which changes the prospects of success may be provided very late in the proceedings, or the case may be resolved by a plea to a lesser offence on the day of trial. The reasons for this are between the accused and, if he or she chooses to share them, their legal team.

It is worth considering this new policy against the ‘credit for plea’ scheme in England and Wales. Under this scheme, an early guilty plea will attract a discount from the sentence imposed by the court. If the guilty plea is entered at the first opportunity, that discount is one third. If the plea is entered on the day of trial, the discount is reduced to 10%. Whilst those who enter guilty pleas at the earliest opportunity are rewarded with a more lenient sentence for doing so, the court has no power to punish an individual who exercises their right to have a trial.

So what is this all about?

The short answer appears to be money. Trials are expensive. The courtroom time, staff, heating, lighting etc must be paid for, the Prosecuting lawyer must be paid for and, if an individual accused of a crime is lucky enough to have the benefit of Legal Aid, the Defence lawyer must also be paid for. But the right to have a trial is a fundamental part of a civilised society. The right to have a fair trial is also a human right protected by law. Not everyone accused of an offence is guilty, the CPS does not always charge the correct offence – or individual – and nor are the police and CPS able to prove every case against an individual accused of an offence.

The court’s desire to cut these costs down should not be at the expense of a wrongful conviction or disadvantage to the accused. Those convicted of crimes are also required to pay a contribution towards the costs of bringing the case against them, in the Magistrates Courts in this region alone that contribution increases by over 700% from the first hearing fee to the trial fee.

What if I don’t want to explain a change in plea?

Defence representatives must always pay close attention to the duty of confidentiality owed to every client. If a Defendant does not wish to explain to the court why their plea has changed, legal representatives cannot go against this wish and the court cannot require them to. When someone accused of a criminal offence decides to plead guilty to that allegation, there is no legal requirement to explain why they have done so – whatever stage court proceedings may have reached. Of course, there may be a very good reason and providing it to the court could benefit the accused – in some instances, there is much to gain from providing this information. It is still the decision of the accused to provide this information.

How can I get more information?

Finding yourself entangled in the criminal justice system can be an extremely distressing experience, and the decision to enter a guilty plea must be taken very seriously. If you have been accused of a criminal offence and you would like to receive advice or representation, please contact a member of the crime department who will be able to provide further information. You can call us on 0191 565 3112 or email advice@benhoarebell.co.uk.

Blog by Sophie Cohen, Criminal Defence Solicitor