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23rd June 2017

One third reduced sentences in return for early guilty pleas

The Sentencing Council’s early guilty plea guideline, which came into effect on 1 June 2017, sets out the principles courts should apply to reduce a sentence in the event of a guilty plea.

The courts have always encouraged early guilty pleas by awarding a credit ‘discount’ of up to one third where a defendant – company or individual – accepts guilt at an early stage. Later pleas often attract lesser discounts.

Whilst implied in terms of a ‘discount’, this often works more as a threat i.e. challenge the case against you – and you risk losing the discount.

The new guideline applies to those with a hearing on or after 1st of June 2017 and will apply to magistrates’ courts and the crown court. It states that where a guilty plea is indicated at the “first stage of proceedings”, a reduction of sentencing should be one third.

In the health and safety world, with significantly increased fines now becoming the norm, such a discount is often significant. For example, one third off a £3,000,000 fine is well worth having. There is therefore a real concern that many companies in the dock will simply plead guilty even where there may be a reasonable prospect of defending themselves.

In such cases, it is still vital to seek proper advice early and to challenge and robustly defend the precise terms of the case you face – a one third discount might sound like a lot to gamble but this may well be a poor discount if the proper outcome were to be an acquittal or far greater reduction in the base line fine.

It is important to note that the new guidelines still make provision for complex cases where advice (and possibly expert input) is required. Health and safety prosecutions will often fall into this category – guilt or innocence is often a matter of careful technical assessment rather than simple acknowledgement.

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