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Guilty Pleas and Reduced Sentences

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‘Credit’ for the defendant who pleads guilty is of course a long established sentencing practice that affords the courts the opportunity to draw a distinction between the defendant who admits his guilt and one who does not, by an appropriate reduction in sentence for the  former. Most will be familiar with the basic concept of a 1/3 reduction for a ‘timely’ guilty plea, with credit reducing on a sliding scale towards trial, after which credit is effectively lost. However, it has become clear over time that different courts apply the concept in different manners, leading in effect at times to a ‘post-code lottery’ situation whereby a defendant cannot be sure of the weight that will be afforded to his admission of guilt, nor when is the best time to advance any such admissions.

Helpfully then, the Court of Appeal has given fresh guidance on the interpretation of the Sentencing Guidelines Council’s 2007 guidance document on reductions for guilty pleas.

In Caley & others (guilty pleas) the Court of Appeal heard a series of appeals together, all brought on behalf of defendants who argued that they had not been afforded the correct reduction in sentence on account of their respective guilty pleas.  Whilst the individual appellant’s enjoyed a varying degree of success, the following important points were made by the court which can frequently affect credit in practice:

The ‘first reasonable opportunity’ to indicate a guilty plea is a matter for the sentencing judge. The Court conceded that there are of course cases in which there may be a need for the defence to have full prosecution papers before guilt can be determined. However, in the majority of cases, the defendant will know his guilt or otherwise, and is reminded of his opportunity to indicate a plea in the Magistrates’ Court or through local ‘Early Guilty Plea’ schemes. A defendant cannot rely on entering a guilty plea at PCMH if he wants full credit.  A plea at PCMH will usually attract a lesser discount of around 25%.  A plea on the day of trial 10%.  A judge can be asked to give up to one third credit at any point but must be persuaded to do so based on proper reasons.

The police station interview is not to be considered the first reasonable opportunity to indicate a guilty plea. It is wrong to refuse any credit to the defendant who gives a no comment interview, but goes on to indicate a timely guilty plea, solely on the basis that no admissions were made in interview. In clarifying this important point the Court demonstrated a recognition and understanding of the police station process, which some lower courts can consistently fail to do. It is not to say however, that the defendant who does make pre-charge admissions will not find himself in a more favourable position on sentence. Rather, said the court in Caley, such admissions will generally be a mitigating factor tending to reduce the starting point of any sentence before any reduction for a guilty plea. The weight given to such admissions will depend on the strength of the evidence at the police station stage – clearly the defendant who makes frank admissions to a crime that the police would not otherwise be able to ‘bring home’ will be afforded more mitigation than the one who throws his hands in faced with overwhelming evidence.

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