Changing your plea
If you are charged for a criminal offence you will be asked whether you wish to plead guilty or not guilty to the offence. Naturally, if you plead guilty and then wish to change to a not-guilty plea a jury is likely to draw significant inferences from your decision to plead guilty and then subsequently change to not guilty. A more common situation is when an individual is charged with a criminal offence and pleads not guilty and then, when the case gets nearer to trial, changes their plea to guilty.
Merits of an early guilty plea
A solicitor will usually advise you on the merits of an early guilty plea (rather than waiting for the commencement of the trial). Generally, if a defendant pleads guilty to a criminal offence at an early stage he will receive credit for doing so when the judge decides what particular sentence to impose.
Plea in mitigation
A solicitor will also be able to give what is known as a ‘plea in mitigation’ on behalf of the defendant. This is when the solicitor will be able to make submissions to the judge that the defendant should be given a minimum sentence on account of various factors such as their previous behaviour, lack of past convictions, decision to plead not guilty etc.
Plea before venue
Generally a defendant will be made to attend what is known as a plea before venue where they will be told what offences they have been charged with and asked whether they wish to plead guilty or not guilty.
A defendant should have had the benefit of a solicitor’s legal advice before this stage and so should be in a position to know the consequences of their decision to plead either guilty or not guilty.
If a defendant chooses to plead guilty then they will either be sentenced immediately (usually for smaller criminal offences) or the matter may be transferred to a Crown Court for sentencing.
Reduction in sentence
A reduction in the sentence given for a crime will generally be made (though not in all circumstances, particularly for the most serious of crimes) for a guilty plea.
Under the Criminal Justice Act 2003, if a defendant has entered a guilty plea the court "must take into account" the stage of the proceedings at which the defendant gave their indication of a guilty plea and the circumstances in which the indication was given.
For example, somebody who admits the offence upon being charged is far more likely to be given a reduced sentence than somebody who waits until the morning of a trial. Similarly, somebody who waits until the evidence is so severe that a verdict of guilty is almost certain before pleading guilty is unlikely to receive much credit from a judge.
The rationale for reducing a defendant’s sentence is on the basis that the costs of having criminal trials are extremely expensive to the general public. It is, therefore, seen as a huge benefit if these costs can be reduced and one way of doing this is to incentivise an early guilty plea.
If you are to change your plea to a guilty one you should not expect your sentence to be reduced to the extent it would have been had you pleaded guilty throughout. Having said that, a judge will still take into account the fact you have pleaded guilty provided it is not at a very late stage or because the evidence has become overwhelmingly against you.