If you have been charged on suspicion of a criminal offence, you will have to appear before the Magistrates’ Court where you will be asked to indicate if you intend to plead guilty or not guilty. The implications of your decision on how to plead can be substantial and can affect the sentence that you are given, if you are convicted. This article explores what happens if you plead guilty to a criminal offence in England and Wales. We look at your plea options and the different procedures that will be followed if you plead guilty versus if you plead not guilty. We consider the extent to which pleading guilty could reduce your sentence. Finally, we explain how instructing a solicitor could benefit you, even if you intend to put forward a guilty plea.
The two possible pleas in a criminal court in England and Wales are guilty or not guilty. The procedure for entering your plea depends on the type of offence that you have been charged with. When you first appear at the Magistrates’ Court, your case will be treated differently depending on if the offence that you have been charged with is:
Indictable only: This means that the offence can only be tried in the Crown Court. For indictable only matters, you can only enter your guilty plea in the Crown Court. However, you can indicate a guilty plea in the Magistrates’ Court. This means that the case will be listed for a guilty plea, and for sentence in the Crown Court. However, at any time up to and during the hearing at the Crown Court, you could theoretically change your plea to not guilty.
Either way: Either way offences could either be heard in the Magistrates’ Court or in the Crown Court depending on the circumstances. You will first be asked how you intend to plead, guilty or not guilty. Taking into account your plea, the magistrate will then consider if they have adequate sentencing powers, and whether the case involves matters of complexity (such as expert evidence) that would make it unsuitable for the Magistrates’ Court. Where the magistrate determines that the case could be heard in the Magistrates’ Court, the defendant will then be asked to elect whether the case is heard in the Magistrates’ Court or the Crown Court.
Summary only: Summary only offences will usually be heard in the Magistrates’ Court unless you have been charged with another connected offence that is going to be heard in the Crown Court, in which case, it may be that both offences are heard in the Crown Court. For summary only offences, you will be asked to give your guilty or not guilty plea when you first appear at the Magistrates’ Court.
If you are suffering from mental health issues, such that you cannot understand the meaning of the charge against you, you can tell the court that you are unfit to plead. In these circumstances, the court may take evidence from you – and, usually, supporting evidence from a medical professional – to find out whether you are unfit to plead.
Pleading guilty means that you formally admit that you have committed the offence of which you have been accused. If you plead guilty, the court will then proceed to consider the sentence that you should be given. This could be a custodial sentence, fine, or community sentence.
Pleading not guilty means that you deny committing the alleged offence, or you admit committing the offence but say that you had a reasonable excuse i.e. a defence. If you plead not guilty your case will then proceed to a trial, which will hear evidence in order to reach a verdict on whether or not you committed the crime.
A guilty plea will reduce the sentence that you are given. The general rule of thumb is that the earlier you plead guilty, the more your sentence will be reduced, in comparison with a not guilty plea. The sentencing council has produced a Definitive Guideline that explains how much a sentence could be reduced for a guilty plea at different stages in the criminal justice process. Sentence reduction for a guilty plea is a general principle rather than a matter of law. This means that the defendant does not have a right to a sentence discount; this remains a matter for the court’s discretion.
If you plead guilty at the first court hearing:
In these circumstances, your sentence could be reduced by up to one third. This is the maximum reduction in the sentence for a guilty plea that is allowed by statute.
If you plead guilty after the first court hearing but before the first day of trial:
Say you enter a plea of not guilty at the first court hearing, but you later change your mind and change your plea to guilty. If you change your plea to guilty before the first day of the trial, you could receive a sentence reduction of up to one quarter.
If you plead guilty after the first day of trial:
Perhaps you initially pleaded not guilty but then at the trial you see that the case against you is very strong. It is not too late to change your plea to guilty. If you change your plea to guilty after the first day of trial, you could receive a sentence reduction of up to one tenth.
Note, however, that these are the maximum sentence reductions that you could receive. You may receive a lesser sentence reduction.
There are some exceptions to these rules. For example, where the sentencing court is satisfied that: ‘there were particular circumstances which significantly reduced the defendant’s 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 one third should still be made.’
Where you were initially charged for one offence to which you entered a guilty plea, but you were subsequently convicted of a different or lesser offence, the court must still take your original guilty plea into account. However, in the Crown Court: ‘where the offered plea is a permissible alternative on the indictment as charged, the offender will not be treated as having made an unequivocal indication unless the offender has entered that plea.’
Types of sentence reduction for a guilty plea
If you are given a sentence reduction for a guilty plea, this could lead to a decrease in the number of days of your custodial sentence. Alternatively, this could take the form of:
Imposing one type of sentence rather than another: for example, you may be given a fine or community sentence in the place of a custodial sentence.
Multiple summary offences: The general rule is that when dealing with more than one summary offence committed by one defendant, the Magistrates’ Court can only sentence you for six months’ imprisonment in total. If you plead guilty, you may still be given this maximum six month sentence. However, the court may make a modest additional reduction to the overall sentence to acknowledge your guilty plea.
Keeping an either way offence in the Magistrates’ Court: If you plead guilty at the Magistrates’ Court, the sentence reduction that you are awarded may mean that the magistrate has adequate sentencing powers to keep the case within the Magistrates’ Court for sentencing. The magistrate must apply the appropriate sentence reduction, and then determine whether they have the jurisdiction to sentence the offence, or whether it must be committed for sentence to the Crown Court.
Even if you plead guilty, it is worthwhile instructing a criminal defence solicitor. This is because your solicitor can assist you in getting a better outcome in terms of your sentence. For example, your solicitor can bring mitigating factors to the court’s attention, which may serve to reduce the sentence that you are given. Say, for example, you are accused of shoplifting. You decide to plead guilty because you accept that you took the items. However, you are a single parent, and your benefits payments were cut without warning leaving you without money to buy food. These are the types of facts that your solicitor can put before the court, backed up by the relevant evidence e.g. correspondence with the relevant benefits agency, in a plea in mitigation.
At Stuart Miller Solicitors, our experienced and dedicated team of solicitors can help you whether you intend to plead guilty or not guilty. Where you have not yet decided how to plead, whilst we cannot tell you what do, we will provide you with information regarding the consequences of each plea, which will help you to reach the right decision for you. Instructing a trusted firm of solicitors really can make all the difference. Contact us for a no-obligation consultation today.