The Sentencing Council’s recent publication of its findings from its annual survey of Crown Court sentences in 2014 made some very revealing analysis. The survey collected information directly from judges on the factors taken into account when they imposed a sentence at the Crown Court. The survey captures results from 12 criminal offences, including: fraud, bribery and money laundering, arson and criminal damage, assault and public order, offences causing death, robbery and sexual offences.The stage at which a plea is entered is a critical phase of any criminal case, given the corresponding impact it has on sentence.

The survey found that 72% of offenders pleaded guilty at the first reasonable opportunity and for those so doing, 89% were given one-third or more reduction in sentence. The fact that 11% of offenders were not given the full reduction of one-third, despite pleading guilty at the first reasonable opportunity, suggests that Courts are exercising their discretion to deny full credit in instances where an offender has been caught’red handed’.On the other hand, in the 28% of cases where offenders did not plead guilty until a later stage (which would include up to, and including the trial itself), 5% of offenders still retained full credit for that late plea. This is most likely attributable to cases where the prosecution agreed at a later stage to accept a guilty plea to a lesser offence, and it is only after the lesser offence was accepted by all parties that a plea was entered. In these cases it would be appropriate for the judge to recognise that the guilty plea entered for that lesser offence was at the offender’s first available opportunity to do so. Thus, the maximum credit for such a plea would still be awarded.Overall, the survey findings demonstrated that offences causing a higher degree of harm, and/or which involve more aggravating factors, are far more likely to result in sentences of imprisonment that are more severe than those offences that are considered to be less serious.

Sentencing guidelines play a critical role in providing consistency and transparency in the administration of justice. Put simply, those facing the criminal justice system can seek some measure of comfort knowing that judges up and down the country are adhering to the published guidance, and both in terms of length of sentence and credit for early guilty pleas.

Miranda Ching is an Associate in the Business Crime Department at Peters & Peters Solicitors LLP and can be contacted on (0)20 7822 7728 or mching@petersandpeters.com.