The Sentencing Council, which produces sentencing guidelines for courts in England and Wales, has proposed restricting the maximum one third sentence reduction only to those cases where the offender pleads guilty at the first possible opportunity. Health and safety law expert Sean Elson of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that companies already facing the prospect of much higher fines under the new health and safety sentencing guideline should take note.
"The current discount of up to one third for a fine that may be measured in the millions of pounds is an important consideration for organisations when defending proceedings," he said.
"This is a clear attempt to place pressure on defendants to plead guilty early, even in cases where the nature of a prosecution allegation at that stage may be far from clear and the evidence incomplete. It will make it even more important for organisations facing the possibility of criminal proceedings to obtain legal advice early. Pinsent Masons will be responding to the consultation, and I would welcome comments from any organisation with an interest in this development," he said.
The existing rules, which date back to 2007, allow courts to give the maximum sentencing discount of one third to those who plead guilty at the first reasonable opportunity. However, the Sentencing Council said that these rules were not always applied consistently, and that the reductions given in some cases appeared to be higher than recommended.
The Sentencing Council has now proposed that the maximum reduction only be made available to offenders who plead guilty the first time that they are asked for their plea in court. Offenders who do not plead guilty at this stage, but do so before the trial date, would receive a maximum one-fifth deduction under the new rules, down from the one-quarter reduction available at present.
Sentencing discounts would drop even further for those offenders who wait until closer to the trial before pleading guilty. The new rules propose a maximum one-tenth reduction for those who plead guilty on the first day of the trial, with no discounts available at all if the offender changes its plea to guilty part-way through the trial. Exceptions would be available in certain special circumstances, for example where the offender is convicted of a lesser or different offence or for exceptionally time-consuming or complex cases in the crown court.
The stricter rules are aimed at bringing forward the point at which offenders plead guilty, enabling the criminal justice system to dispose of cases more quickly and sparing victims and witnesses the "stress and anxiety" of a trial, the Sentencing Council said. It is consulting on the draft until 5 May, and is particularly interested to hear views on the stages in the court process at which different levels of reduction should apply and whether there should be any exceptions to the general rules on sentence reductions, it said.
"We want those who have committed crimes to admit their guilt as early as possible," said Lord Justice Treacy, chair of the Sentencing Council. "When they do, it means victims and witnesses can be reassured that the offender has accepted responsibility for what they have done and that they are spared having to appear at court to testify. It also means that the police and Crown Prosecution Service can use their resources more efficiently to investigate and prosecute other cases."
A new sentencing guideline for use by courts in England and Wales in health and safety, corporate manslaughter and food safety and food hygiene cases came into force at the start of this month. The guideline is expected to lead to much higher fines for the largest companies convicted of the most serious regulatory breaches.