Vera Baird

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The Commissioner’s Response to the Sentencing Council Consultation – Reduction in Sentencing for a Guilty Plea Guideline

4th May 2016

Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria, Vera Baird QC’s response to the the Reduction in Sentencing for a Guilty Plea Guideline Consultation.

Question 1

  1. a) Is the rationale in the key principles section set out clearly?

Yes – It is very clear and highlights the benefits of such pleas being entered as early in the process as possible to reduce the impact of crime on victims, saving victims and witnesses from testifying and ultimately delivering benefits in the public interest such as saving public time and money on investigations and trials.

Do you agree?

  1. b) with the stated purposes of operating a reduction for guilty plea scheme?

Yes to yield the benefits described above

  1. c) that the guideline does not erode the principle that it is for the prosecution to prove its case?

The guideline does not in my view erode the principle, however I do consider that it could be referred to in a stronger manner in section B.

The additional notes set out that “whilst a guilty plea is desirable it is important to note that nothing in the draft guideline should be taken to suggest that an accused who is not guilty should be pressurised into pleading guilty – that the guideline explicitly states that it is for the prosecution to prove its case; the guideline does not undermine the presumption of innocence”.

If this refers to the first sentence in Section B key principles then I would consider that this could be strengthened and that perhaps a guard against a vulnerable person who may have been accused and that the reference to putting the prosecution to proof could be strengthened.

  1. d) that factors such as admissions in the pre-court process should be taken into account as mitigating factors before the application of the reduction for guilty plea?

Yes

Please give reasons where you do not agree. – N/A

Question 2

  1. Do you agree with the approach taken in the draft guideline to overwhelming evidence i.e. that the reduction for a guilty plea should not be withheld in cases of overwhelming evidence?

Yes – bearing in mind that the purpose of reducing a sentence for a guilty plea is primarily to yield the benefits described in the Key Principle section, and if we want to increase the number of these instance then we must demonstrate this as an incentive as opposed to a reward.  The incentive to plead at an early stage is enhanced by the guidelines which provide:

  • Clarity around the levels of reduction appropriate at different stages
  • Provision of a consistent and certain application of the guidelines without any subjectivity as to whether or not the prosecution case is overwhelming.

 

If not:

  1. Do you think that the alternative approach (of allowing the court discretion to apply a lower reduction after the first stage of the proceedings) is preferable?

N/A

Question 3

  1. Is the method of applying a reduction at the first stage of the proceedings set out clearly?

The guidelines are clear about the method by which the first stage in the proceedings is identified and this is a clearer definition than ‘first reasonable opportunity’ as in the SGC guidelines.  In respect of victims and witnesses this clarity and consistency of approach is essential.  They will in the majority of cases have no in depth understanding of the criminal justice system can understand from the guidelines where the first stage in the system is, and that if the plea takes place at that point that there will be a reduction in sentencing.  There is no subjectivity in this situation and a no court or judge can interpret the guidelines in any other way than is intended.

Do you agree:

  1. with capping the maximum reduction at one-third?

Yes

  1. with restricting the point at which the one-third reduction can be made to the first stage of the proceedings?

Yes

  1. with the definition of first stage of the proceedings for adults and youths for each type of offence at D1?

Yes

Please give reasons where you do not agree.

Question 4

  1. Is the method of determining the reduction after the first stage of the proceedings set out clearly?

Yes

 

Do you agree:

  1. with restricting the reduction to one-fifth after the first stage of proceedings?
  2. with the definition of the point at which the one-fifth reduction can be given at D2?
  3. with the sliding scale reduction (at D3) thereafter?
  4. with treating the trial as having started when pre-recording cross-examination has taken place?

Yes

Please give reasons where you do not agree.

N/A

Question 5

  1. Is the paragraph on imposing one type of sentence rather than another clear?

Yes

Do you agree:

  1. that it may be appropriate to reflect a guilty plea by suspending a period of imprisonment?

Yes

  1. that when the guilty plea reduction is reflected in imposing a different (less severe) type of sentence that no further reduction should be made?

Yes

Please give reasons where you do not agree

N/A

Question 6

  1. Is the guidance at paragraphs E2 to E4 clear?

Yes

  1. Do you agree with the guidance at E2 that there should be provision for a further reduction in cases where consecutive sentences (after guilty plea reduction) for summary offences total to the maximum of six months?

Yes

  1. Are there any other jurisdictional issues that the guideline should address?

N/A

Please give reasons where you do not agree.

 

Question 7

  1. Is the guidance at F1 clear?

Yes

Do you agree:

  1. that the exception is a necessary safeguard?

Yes

  1. that the right cases are captured by this exception?

Yes

Please give reasons where you do not agree.

Question 8

  1. a) Is the guidance at F2 clear?

Yes this is clear

Do you agree:

  1. that the exception will ensure that defendants will know what the allegations are against them before being required to enter a plea?

Yes this exception allows 14 days for the prosecutor to make the IDPC available to the accused.

  1. that the exception should apply to either way and indictable only offences but not to summary offences?

Yes

  1. that 14 days is the appropriate extension?

This seems an appropriate extension

Please give reasons where you do not agree.

Question 9

  1. Is the guidance at F3 clear?

Yes

  1. Do you agree with the proposed reduction in cases where an offender’s version of events is rejected at a Newton or special reasons hearing?

Yes

Please give reasons where you do not agree.

N/A

Question 10

  1. Is the guidance at F4 clear?

Whilst in principle the guidance is clear, and I understand that this is an exception in respect of exceptionally complex and time consuming cases in the Crown court these guidelines do not uphold the commitment to ‘clarity and consistency’ expressed earlier in the guidance as it states that the reduction can be made if for a plea indicated ‘later than’ the first stage with no indication of ‘how late’ this is acceptable perhaps this could be included.

Do you agree:

  1. that it is a necessary exception for the small number of cases to which it applies?

Yes

  1. that the exception is worded appropriately to capture the right cases?

Yes

  1. Please give reasons where you do not agree.

N/A

Question 11

  1. Is the guidance at F5 clear?

Yes the guidance is clear for this exemption

  1. Do you agree with the proposed treatment of cases where an offender is convicted of a different or lesser offence?

Yes

Please give reasons where you do not agree

Question 12

  1. Is the guidance at F6 to F8 accurate and clear?

Yes

Question 13

  1. Is the guidance in section G on reduction for a guilty plea in cases of murder clear?

Yes the guidance is clear for this exemption

  1. Do you agree with the guidance in such cases?

It is important to retain public confidence and I would agree that where there the court determines that there should be a whole life minimum term that there should be no reduction for a guilty plea.

Please give reasons where you do not agree.

N/A

Question 14

  1. Do you agree that Section G in the SGC guideline can be omitted from the new guideline?

Yes

  1. Please give reasons where you do not agree.

N/A

Question 15

  1. Are the flowcharts at appendices 1 to 6 clear?

Yes the flowcharts are clear

  1. Do you agree that it is helpful to include the flowcharts?

Yes it is helpful to include the charts

  1. Is there any other explanatory material that it would be useful to include?

Yes if the intention of providing the flow charts is to enhance the clarity of the process and that you would expect victims and witnesses to see the chart when engaging with the police or a Victim Service provider then it may be useful to include a glossary of terms for those not familiar with the terminology used in the guidance and the flowcharts.

Question 16

  1. Are there any further ways in which you think victims can or should be considered?

 

A victim or their family may have had the opportunity to make a Victim Personal Statement

(VPS) as outlined in the Code of Practice for Victims of Crime (the “Victims’ Code”).  Findings of a recent report by Baroness Newlove, ‘The silenced victim: a review of the victim personal statement’ found that victims saw the VPS as a way for them and their families to express the impact that the crime has had on them and that the Statement has a very significant value to those who choose to make one. Perhaps, bearing this in mind, what could be made clear in the guidelines or within the flow chart for the victim and the officers/victim service supporting the victim is where the VPS fits within the trial process.  If this were adopted then inevitably it should be included in the flow charts and any other supplementary guidance issued.  Overall it is essential that in all cases, regardless of the plea, that victims and their families are given the opportunity to make a VPS, and make sure that their voice is heard.  This is a key element of coping and recovery for victims of crime.

 

In the key principles at the beginning of the document there is reference to where the offender’s personal mitigation fits into the sentence reduction process.  It states that factors such as admissions at interview, co-operation with the investigation and demonstrations of remorse should not be taken into account in determining the level of reduction. Rather, they should be considered separately and prior to any guilty plea reduction, as potential mitigating factors.   However if the key principles are ‘victim focused’ then perhaps there should be some inclusion of information about the impact of and point at which aggravating factors sit in this process.

 

  1. Are there any equality or diversity matters that the Council should consider? Please provide evidence of any issues where possible.

From the perspective of the victim/witness or the defendant I would trust that where there is a vulnerability such as language difficulties or learning/communication difficulties that the basic process and impact of the early plea in terms of sentencing and the court process would be clearly explained and if appropriate provided in languages used by communities in the area.  For those with communication or learning difficulties you may like to consider supplementing the flow charts with an ‘easy read’ format booklet or guidance.

In addition within the court that there is attention paid by the Judge to ensure that if a defendant makes a guilty plea that they are fully aware of their options and have the impact of the plea explained.