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Changes to the discount in sentence given for an early guilty plea for motoring offences – Effective June 2017

From 1 June 2017, those facing criminal allegations such as motoring offences will see changes to the sentencing guidelines.

Currently, defendants who plead guilty at the earliest opportunity usually receive a reduction in their sentence of one third. This applies to the financial penalties imposed on motorists convicted of driving offences. The discount does not usually apply to penalty points which are often set at a legal minimum for certain offences.

If the defendant driver enters a not guilty plea initially, but later changes his or her plea to one of guilty, the court usually reduces the discount applied to the sentence. If the defendant driver waits until the day of trial, the reduction can be as little as 10%. No discount applies if the court convicts the defendant after a trial.

For example, a speeding motorist caught travelling at 38mph in a 30mph limit who declines the offer of a fixed penalty may ordinarily be facing three points and a fine of up to £1000. The fine depends partly on the level of his or her income. If the motorist is on a modest income and is convicted after a trial, the fine to be imposed after a trial may be £600. However if the same motorist pleads guilty at the first opportunity, it would usually be reduced to £400.

Currently, it’s a little unclear what happens if the driver pleads guilty in between the initial hearing and the trial. He or she has not pleaded guilty at the earliest opportunity, but the prosecution is unlikely to have been put to much additional work between the first hearing and the second. It’s rare that it has caused any inconvenience has been caused to witnesses. However some court time will have been ‘wasted’ with a second hearing.

The new guidelines attempts to set a sliding scale for the discount the court should apply during this time. However, the court will still retain discretion. The new guidelines state the following:

  • Where a guilty plea is indicated at the first stage of proceedings a reduction of one-third should still usually be made.
  • Where the plea is indicated after the first stage of proceedings a reduction of a maximum one quarter should be made. There is then a sliding scale of reduction thereafter.
  • The reduction should be decreased from one-quarter to a maximum of one-tenth on the first day of trial.
  • The reduction should normally be decreased further, even to zero, if the guilty plea is entered during the course of the trial.

The above are only guidelines, not ‘hard and fast’ rules. Other factors can be taken into account. The new guidelines state that in certain circumstances, the full one-third discount may be given even if not entered at the earliest opportunity. For example, if the court is satisfied that there were particular circumstances which significantly reduced the defendant’s ability to understand what was alleged or otherwise made it unreasonable to expect the defendant to indicate a guilty plea sooner than was done. This may apply where the defendant needed to seek legal advice to understand the appropriate plea. This may need to be argued before the court to ensure the discount is given.

Changes to sentence following unsuccessful special reasons or Newton hearings.

In circumstances where an defendant driver’s version of events is rejected at a Newton (fact finding) hearing or special reasons hearing, the reduction would normally be halved. Where witnesses are called during such a hearing, it may be appropriate to decrease the reduction even further. Prior to these guidelines coming into effect, the defendant would often retain full credit for an early guilty plea.

Why the changes?

The guidelines state that their purpose is to encourage those who are going to plead guilty to do so as early in the court process as possible.

The benefits of an early guilty plea is that it:

a) normally reduces the impact of the crime upon victims;
b) saves victims and witnesses from having to testify; and
c) is in the public interest in that it saves public time and money on investigations and trials.

The guidelines state that “nothing in the guideline should be used to put pressure on a defendant to plead guilty”. In reality though, many defendants plead guilty to offences because they can’t ‘risk’ a larger penalty if found guilty. After all, courts don’t always get it right. That’s why we have the ability to appeal.

The new guidelines can be read here.