Pleading guilty – the impact on sentence

For most offences, defendants receive a discount on their sentence if they plead guilty. The discount given depends largely on the stage at which the defendant enters a guilty plea.The earlier a defendant pleads guilty, the higher the discount given. This is said to acknowledge savings in court time and costs. Pleading guilty also means that witnesses will avoid the stress of giving evidence and being cross-examined.

The rules on the amount of credit to be given for a guilty plea are set out in the Sentencing Council’s Guidelines. It ranges from a maximum of one-third where the defendant pleads guilty at the first stage of the proceedings. After this a sliding scale applies with a maximum reduction of one-quarter to a maximum of one-tenth on the first day of trial. Credit will generally decrease further, even to zero, if the defendant pleads guilty during the trial.

Case of Johnson & Others 2022

The question of how much credit should be allowed was recently considered by the Court of Appeal in the case of Johnson and others.

In the Crown Court, Johnson initially pleaded not guilty. Although he indicated a guilty plea earlier, he did not plead guilty until the first day of the trial. He received a lead sentence of 16 years for conspiracy to supply Class A drugs. He was also sentenced to 5 years each for possession with intent to supply cocaine and heroin. The sentences were concurrent meaning that the total sentence was 16 years. As the starting point for the lead offence was 20 years, Johnson effectively received credit of one-fifth for mitigation. This included one-tenth for previous good character and a further one-tenth for his guilty plea.

Johnson appealed his sentence on the grounds that:

The Court of Appeal rejected the first two grounds. Regarding the credit to be given for pleading guilty, the Court made clear that an early indication of a ‘likely’ or ‘probable’ plea is not enough. Only an unequivocal indication of a guilty plea will determine the credit to be given. Due to the late stage at which Johnson pleaded guilty, the credit of one-tenth was appropriate.

Johnson’s appeal on the third ground was more successful. The Court decided that not enough credit was given for previous good character. In particular, the Court referred to the absence of previous convictions at the age of 37 and to extensive character evidence from family, friends and a previous employer. As a result, the Court substituted a sentence of 14 years, effectively a reduction of one-fifth.

The message to take home

The Sentencing Guidelines are complex. The question of the sentence a defendant is likely to receive will depend on a multitude of factors which are individual to each case. Defendants considering a guilty plea should obtain specialist legal advice at the earliest possible stage about the impact that pleading guilty will have on the sentence they receive.

The Johnson case also demonstrates the importance of presenting comprehensive evidence of previous good character whenever this is available.

For advice on this matter, contact us.