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Offenders who plead guilty will usually receive a reduced sentence, compared to the sentence they would have received had they been convicted following a not guilty plea. This was a well established principle under the common law, and has since been put on a statutory footing supplemented by sentencing guidelines. The rationale behind this is that it encourages defendants who know they are guilty to enter a guilty plea at the earliest possible stage, so saving court time and money and saving witnesses (including victims) from having to attend court to give evidence.

Current approach

The level of reduction is at the discretion of the court, although current sentencing guidelines require that the usual reduction will be one third where the guilty plea was indicated at the first stage of proceedings. A reduced discount of one quarter is suggested where the plea was only entered after the first stage of proceedings, reducing on a sliding scale to a maximum of one tenth where the plea was entered on the first day of the trial. The reduction should normally be reduced further, even to zero, if the guilty plea is entered during the course of the trial.

Previous proposals for change

In December 2010, the Ministry of Justice published a green paper that included a proposal to increase the maximum reduction in sentence for a guilty plea from one third to one half. The Coalition Government said that this would encourage more defendants to plead guilty at an early stage, so reducing inefficiencies and “sparing victims needless worry” about attending court. However, critics argued that this change could undermine public confidence in sentencing if it results in much lower sentences for serious offenders. The Coalition Government withdrew the proposal in June 2011. The then Prime Minister said the Government had concluded that with a one half reduction, sentences would be too lenient, the wrong message would be sent out to criminals and public confidence in the system would be eroded.

The current guideline was subject to public consultation in 2016 which led to a number of changes to the draft version. The Sentencing Council had, in the draft guideline, proposed lowering the reductions available after the first hearing, but respondents to the consultation said that this could in fact lead to an increase in the number of trials due to defendants deciding not to plead guilty. 

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