Criminal defence practitioners will be required to discuss, in open court, with a judge the reason for a late guilty plea as part of government measures to reduce a 'disproportionately high' number of cracked trials.

HM Courts & Tribunals Service wrote to solicitors this week, informing them of changes in court practice across Thames Valley after conducting a three-month data collection exercise of cases involving a guilty plea entered on the day of the trial.

The letter, seen by the Gazette, says: 'You will appreciate that we are still double listing our trial courts because less than 50% are effective on the day. Whilst looking at trial performance, the local criminal justice board noted a disproportionately high number of our cracked trials were due to late guilty pleas (to the original offences charged) on the date of trial.

'Whilst it is accepted that there will always be cases that crack on the day of trial for various reasons, it is fair to say that a large number of cases where guilty pleas were entered could have been dealt with in advance of the trial, thereby freeing up valuable trial time.'

After reviewing 120 cases, HMCTS proposes seven steps to reduce the number of cracked trials and 'capture accurate information to identify the root causes of the problem'.

Magistrates will be required to ensure the reason for a late guilty plea being entered on the day of trial is recorded accurately on the Cracked and Ineffective Trial Form. 'All parties will therefore be required to remain in court at the conclusion of the hearing to participate in a discussion (in open court) led by the presiding justice to ensure the reasons for the late change of plea are recorded,' HMCTS says.

The amount of enhanced costs likely to be sought by the Crown should the matter proceed to trial will be identified at the trial fixing hearing and recorded on the Preparation for Effective Trial form.

The court should award appropriate uplifts in costs to reflect late guilty pleas and ask for an explanation for the timing of the plea to help the court decide what, if any, sentencing discount should be given.

The letter states that the court will continue to monitor the number of trials where guilty pleas are entered on the day and reason why they are late.