Criminal defence solicitors are expected to oppose proposed replacement guidelines on sentence reductions for early guilty pleas.
The Sentencing Council says it wants to ensure that reductions for guilty pleas ‘should be applied fairly and consistently and that the guideline should encourage defendants who are guilty to plead guilty as early in the court process as possible’.
Benefits include: being able to inform victims and witnesses that their testimony is not required; resource savings for the police, Crown Prosecution Service, Legal Aid Agency and HM Courts and Tribunals Service.
The council’s consultation closes on 5 May.
The Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association told the Gazette it had ‘grave reservations’ about the replacement guidelines, ‘particularly in the current climate where the CPS is serving less and less detail about a case (especially relevant when complex) and often not serving it on time’.
The association’s consultation response states that in many proceedings at the initial stage, ‘it is impossible to advise defendants properly until full files of evidence have been provided by the CPS, and the mantra that “the defendant must know whether he has done it” is inappropriate.
‘Lay clients are not lawyers, they rarely know the intricacies of law and possible defences, and no one should be expected to plead without knowledge of the full case against them’.
Current guidelines recommend a one-third reduction where the plea is entered ‘at the first reasonable opportunity’. Under the revised guideline, a maximum one-third reduction would be applied where the plea is entered ‘at the first stage of proceedings’.
The first stage would be the first point at which the charge is put to the offender in court and a plea, or indication of plea, is sought. After the first stage of proceedings, the maximum reduction level would be one-fifth. A sliding scale would follow.
The association said the draft guideline eroded the principle ‘that it is for the prosecution to prove their case’. No admissions made in the pre-court process should be taken into account as mitigating factors, it added.
Jonathan Black (pictured), former president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, said it was ‘simply the wrong time’ to ‘entertain such a proposal’.
Black said the profession was ‘in the midst’ of a struggle to balance its professional duty to provide advice on the evidence ‘against the combined forces of poor disclosure at the first hearing and the failings of the Better Case Management project [and] Digital Case System’.
The LCCSA told members this week that it will submit a ‘strongly worded’ response.