Skip to main content

New sentencing guideline for guilty pleas

Courts have always reduced a defendant’s sentence where a guilty plea is entered, but a proposed new Guideline would significantly alter the level of…

Courts have always reduced a defendant’s sentence where a guilty plea is entered, but a proposed new Guideline would significantly alter the level of this reduction, unless the guilty plea is entered at the very outset of court proceedings. 

The Sentencing Council has recently completed a consultation and produced a new draft Guideline which will apply to all offences. Under the new Guideline the point at which a guilty plea must be entered in order to obtain the maximum one third reduction in sentence will be brought forward.  

A one third reduction will only be available to defendants who plead guilty the very first time they are asked for their plea in court. After that there is a one fifth reduction available before a trial begins and a one tenth reduction if a defendant changes their plea to guilty on the first day of a trial. 

How does this differ from the current position? Currently, a guilty plea must only be entered at the first reasonable opportunity in order to gain the maximum one third reduction in sentence. This enables the court to allow some time for the defendant to consider the prosecution evidence, and take advice from lawyers or experts. The new Guideline would not allow this opportunity, and would require a guilty plea at a very early stage of the court proceedings.

Regulatory offences such as health and safety or environmental cases are often very technical or complex. It can be difficult for a defendant to know whether they have committed an offence without taking legal and expert advice. The new Guideline may well be suitable for general criminal cases, where the defendant clearly knows whether he has committed the offence, but this is not so for regulatory offences. 

The situation is compounded because under the new Guideline the maximum reduction for a guilty plea after the initial hearing will be reduced from one quarter to one fifth. This may not sound like much, but regulatory offences can result in very large fines so this could make a sizeable difference.  

There is concern that these changes are likely to result in higher fines and greater pressures on defendants to plead guilty when they may not be in a position to do so. The consultation period has just closed so we shall keep you up to date with any developments.