New guidelines on sentence reductions for early guilty pleas must allow defendants to obtain legal advice before deciding to plead guilty, an influential group of MPs says today.

The House of Commons justice select committee says it is ‘particularly’ concerned about the potential impact of guilty plea discounts on unrepresented defendants ‘whose cases are factually or legally complex, or whose cognitive abilities are affected by learning disabilities, age, injury or a mental health condition’.

The Sentencing Council says it wants to ensure that a reduction in sentences for guilty pleas ‘should be applied fairly and consistently, and that the guidelines should encourage defendants who are guilty to plead guilty as early in the court process as possible’.

The MPs' report cites research by charity Transform Justice that shows around a fifth of defendants are now unrepresented in (non-traffic) trials and sentencing hearings.

‘Prosecutors suggested that among the main reasons were a range of potential barriers to legal aid and limitations on access to the duty solicitor,’ the committee says. ‘In addition, those with chaotic lives may not be organised enough to arrange a lawyer and judges were perceived to have become more resistant to granting adjournments to allow defendants to secure legal representation.’

The committee says it was also struck by the Criminal Cases Review Commission’s submission to the council’s consultation, which stated that a significant proportion of those who apply for a review of their guilty conviction had entered a guilty plea.

‘The [commission] observes that systemic and personal pressures to plead guilty are capable of extending to the factually innocent, as well as the factually guilty, and goes on to suggest that this may be a particular problem for vulnerable groups, such as those with mental health conditions.’

The committee recommends that an exception in the guideline allowing a defendant more time before deciding on their plea if further information or advice is necessary should be extended to ‘any situation’ where the defendant wishes to obtain legal advice before deciding whether to plead guilty and has been unable to do so.

The exception should also extend to corporate defendants who may need to conduct detailed investigations before deciding how to plead, the committee says.

Voicing additional concerns about the impact on the prison population, the committee recommends that the council delay finalising and implementing the new guideline until it has conducted further research into the factors that influence a defendant’s decision about whether and when to plead guilty, both in the magistrates’ and Crown courts.

The Law Society has already warned that the new guidelines could make criminal defence practitioners liable for negligence.