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Should You Ever Plea Guilty in Court?

As you may already be aware, submitting a guilty plea during a criminal trial may mean that you will receive a lighter sentence, or have the charges against you reduced. It will also mean that there will be no need for a criminal trial to take place, which can be lengthy and difficult ordeals.

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While that may be a viable option in certain scenarios, especially if a plea bargain comes into play, the application of a guilty plea will depend on a number of different factors, including the strength of your defence against the criminal charges being levelled against you.

Here, we discuss what pleading guilty actually means in the UK, what situations are suitable for a guilty plea, what a plea bargain is and more. Read on below to find out more.

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What does pleading guilty mean?

In the UK, you can be convicted of an offence if you plead guilty, or you are found guilty following a criminal trial. If you plead guilty, this means that you have accepted you committed the offence and, therefore, be convicted.

A guilty plea will negate the necessity for a trial and the court will then proceed to sentencing.

In contrast to this, if you plead ‘not guilty’ to an offence, you are not accepted that you committed the alleged offence. This will then mean that the case will proceed to trial where the prosecution will be tasked with proving that you are guilty.

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What happens at a plea hearing in the UK?

A plea hearing is the first hearing that will take place at the Magistrates and Crown Court. It is also referred to as the Plea and Trial Preparation Hearing (PTPH). This is where you will give an indication of your plea.

If you plead guilty at a plea hearing, the court will proceed to consider your sentence. This will either be done immediately, or they may adjourn the case for a pre-sentence report, which would involve the intervention of the probation service.

What is pleading guilty on a proposed basis?

There may be a scenario where you intend to plead guilty, but the facts of the case that have been put forward by the prosecution are not accurate or are more serious than what you accept happened.

It is still possible to plead guilty in this situation, but you can do so on a proposed basis, also known as a basis of plea. This will set out your (as the defendant) factual version of events and what you are guilty of.

The main purpose of a basis of plea of to remove the aggravating features of a conviction which could result in a more severe sentence. A basis plea needs to be accepted by the judge and prosecution for it to be used to decide sentencing.

If a basis of plea is not accepted by the prosecution and the judge believes that there is a significant difference between the version of events put forward by the prosecution and defence, a mini trial (known as a Newton Hearing) will decide on the facts of the case.

What happens if I plead guilty in Magistrates’ Court?

In the vast majority of instances, criminal cases will start in the Magistrates’ Court. If the case is an ‘either-way’ offence (meaning it can be heard in either the Magistrates’ Court or the Crown Court), the Magistrates’ Court will go through a Plea Before Venue procedure.

Here, the defendant will be asked whether they intend to plead guilty or not guilty. If a defendant provides a guilty plea, the court will then decide whether sentencing should take place in the Magistrates’ or the Crown Court. Similarly, if the defendant indicates a not guilty plea, a decision will be made as to whether the trial will continue in the Magistrates’ or Crown Court.

If the case if a ‘summary-only’ offence (it can only be heard in the Magistrates’ Court), the Plea Before Venue procedure will not take place.

What happens if I plead guilty in crown court?

The Crown Court deals with the most serious criminal cases. Where the offence is ‘indictable-only’ (it can only be heard at the Crown Court), a guilty plea can only be entered into at the Crown Court.

If a defendant pleads guilty to charges at the Crown Court, the judge presiding over the case can either sentence the defendant straight away, or they can adjourn the sentencing hearing to request more information before deciding what the sentence could be.

A judge can request a pre-sentence report, which will be written by the probation service. This is an independent assessment of the offender and the potential risks they pose.

A not guilty plea will see the trial proceed in the Crown Court.

Can you plead guilty and not be convicted?

If you plead guilty to an offence, it means that you have accepted that you committed the offence. Once you have pleaded guilty, you will be convicted. The severity of the punishment you could receive after pleading guilty will depend on the nature of the offence and any additional factors.

If you plead guilty is there a trial?

No, if you plead guilty to an offence, there will be no criminal trial. The case will proceed to sentencing or, if it is being held in the Crown Court, may be adjourned for the judge to make a more informed decision.

The case will only go to trial if you plead not guilty.

Can you plead guilty before your court date?

You will have the opportunity to submit a guilty plea prior to a court date. In certain cases (usually for less serious cases), you may have the opportunity to submit a guilty plea by post.

Do you get a criminal record if you plead guilty?

You will still have an offence recorded on your criminal record if you plead guilty. This includes where you plead guilty and receive a caution as a opposed to a sentence. Cautions can show on both standard and enhances Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks.

How does plea bargaining work UK?

Plea bargaining (also referred to as a plea deal) is a common practice used by a defence. It is used to help minimise the impact of a criminal charge by agreeing to a lesser offence that carries less severe penalties.

For a defence to successfully utilise a plea bargain, it is for them to put forward a case to the prosecution that details the fact that the proposed evidence will not realistically support a conviction, or where the public interest otherwise justifies accepting a plea to a lesser charge.

A plea deal will focus on a process of effective negotiations where the defence set out the weaknesses in the prosecution’s case with a view to reviewing the surrounding circumstances.

A plea bargain may also be an option for a defendant if a prosecution is aiming to secure a testimony against a co-conspirator who has been charged with a more serious crime.

Of course, the benefit to the defendant is that a plea bargain could lead to a lesser charge, while the prosecution could also benefit by avoiding a costly and time-consuming trial at court.

Can you get a plea bargain in the UK?

As briefly touched on above, there are typically two main ways you will be offered a plea deal in the UK. This is where:

  • A lesser charge will be offered due to a lack of evidence, or weaknesses in the prosecution’s case
  • A testimony against a co-conspirator is sought

It is important to note that the Code for Crown Prosecutors states that prosecutors should only accepted a defendant’s guilty plea following a plea bargain if they believe the court will be able to pass a sentence which matches the seriousness of the alleged offending. A prosecution should not accept a guilty plea because it is convenient.

When accepting a plea deal, prosecutors are also required to ensure that the interests and views of the victim, or the victim’s family, are taken into consideration. The court must also be informed on what basis a guilty plea is accepted by a prosecution.  

Can you ever be unfit to plead?

In some cases, defendants will lack sufficient mental capacity to enter into a plea bargain, or to plead guilty to a charge. For example, this may be the case where a defendant has an impairment to their mental functioning, or they have suffered a brain injury.

Here, the court will need to decide whether a defendant is ‘unfit to plead’. There are two unfitness to plead procedures for each court.

In the Magistrates’ Court, the unfitness to plead procedure only applies to offences which carry a potential prison sentence. It is governed by section 11(1) of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000 and section 37(3) of the Mental Health Act 1983.

These legislations permit the Magistrates’ Court to make a hospital order for a defendant where:

  • There is up-to-date medical evidence to demonstrate the defendant has a mental disorder that makes it appropriate for them to be detained in a hospital for further treatment.
  • Following a trial of the facts, the defendant ‘did the act or made the omission charged’

In the Crown Court, the procedure is governed by Criminal Procedure (Insanity) Act 1964, sections 4 and 4A. The test will question whether the defendant as the sufficient ability to:

  • Understand the charges they are facing
  • Decide whether they intent to submit a guilty plea or not guilty plea
  • Exercise their right to challenge the jurors
  • Instruct their own legal representatives
  • Following the course of proceedings
  • Provide evidence in their own defence

Only where all of these criteria can be answered positively can a defendant be considered fit to plead.

If a defendant is found unfit to plead in the Crown Court, a ‘trial of the facts’ takes place before a jury. Here, a jury is not asked to determine whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. Instead, they are asked to state whether the defendant ‘did the cat r made the admission charged against them as the offence’.

If a case if proved against a defendant, the court does not proceed to sentencing. Instead, the court has limited powers to issue:

  • A Hospital Order
  • A Supervision Order
  • An Absolute Discharge

What is a Newton Hearing?

If you pleaded guilty, but dispute any significant facts that could affect sentencing, the defence lawyer should inform the prosecution of the areas of dispute and if the prosecution agrees or rejects the defendant's account this must be put forward in writing and given to the court before the sentence hearing.

The court may approve the pleas but is not bound by any agreement between the parties. If such disputes arise, the court may decide to hold a hearing without a jury present to resolve the issues. This is known as a Newton hearing which deals with the facts if they are disputed, for example whether the loss of value in a theft was £10 or £1,000. Another example is if the victim was slapped once or repeatedly punched or kicked, in both examples this would clearly lead to different outcomes if a lower basis was found.

The ordinary rules and principles regarding burden and standard of proof apply – the prosecution must prove all the elements beyond reasonable doubt. Then after hearing all the evidence, the judge will provide a reasoned decision as to his findings of fact. Defence mitigation will be heard and then sentence passed.

When is a Newton hearing not required?

In R v Underwood (2005), the Court of Appeal set out scenarios where a Newton hearing is not required or not appropriate. These are:

  • If the dispute is essentially of a minor point and the judge’s sentence would be the same no matter which version is adopted;
  • The defence version can be regarded as absurd or obviously untenable;
  • Where the issue requires a verdict from the jury, eg, whether there is the necessary intent under s 18 of the OAPA 1861 (GBH);
  • Where the findings of fact would be inconsistent with the pleas to the counts accepted (particularly important when dealing with multi-count indictments and cases involving several defendants);
  • Where there is a joint enterprise, the judge must consider the seriousness of the joint enterprise and set the individual pleas into context;
  • Where matters of mitigation are the issues in dispute. However the court can allow the defendant to give evidence of matters of mitigation which are within their own knowledge, eg, defendants in drugs cases claiming acted under duress, not amounting in law to a defence.

Effect on the offender

After having heard evidence about the disputed facts, a judge must not find the accused guilty of an offence more serious than the one they have pleaded guilty to but, if the judge finds in favour of the offender’s version of events, they are sentenced on that basis. Any credit due to them for an early guilty plea is awarded and so they may still be entitled to up to one-third reduction of sentence because of pleading guilty at the earliest opportunity.

If the conclusion is in favour of the prosecution and the judge feels the hearing was unnecessary and resulted in distress for the witnesses, or that the offender does not show remorse for the offence, the judge might reduce the discount.

It is for the judge to decide whether the offender should lose all or just part of their entitlement to an early guilty plea credit. A full reduction is generally only justified in exceptional circumstances so the consequence of losing guilty plea credit should be explained to the offender in conference before they allege any dispute.

Should you always plead guilty?

Pleading guilty may seem like a viable option, especially as it will lead to a reduction in the severity of the sentence you may be facing, but it is unlikely to be the best option in every scenario.

If you are accused of a criminal offence and are due to face a trial, consulting the advice and guidance of an expert criminal defence solicitor is essential. They will be able to take a detailed look at your case and advise on the merits of pleading guilty or not guilty. This is something our criminal defence solicitors at JD Spicer Zeb can support you with.

Our team will be able to offer carefully tailored advice and guidance, ensuring that you achieve the best possible outcome whether or not you intend to submit a guilty plea. Depending on the circumstances, this may include seeing the charges dropped altogether, or a reduction in the severity of the penalty.

Contact our criminal defence lawyers about guilty pleas today

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