DWF logo


DWF logo

            Consultation on guilty pleas and its implications for defending health and safety prosecutions

            A consultation on the reductions given for a guilty plea has been launched with responses due by May 2016. We discuss what this could mean for sentences, particularly now that the new Sentencing Guidelines for health and safety are in force.

            Date: 25/02/2016

            A consultation on the reductions given for a guilty plea has been launched with responses due by May.  Currently, the law incentivises guilty pleas to reduce the number of unnecessary trials by encouraging pleas at the earliest opportunity.  A consultation has been launched to determine whether further clarity is needed over the rules. 

            The consultation proposes to tighten up the rules about when a guilty plea must be entered to attract the greatest discount, which is one third, and to increase certainty. The existing rule refers to a plea being entered at the first reasonable opportunity, which can be interpreted broadly for serious health and safety cases to potentially include after the first hearing of the case in the Magistrates Court has been heard, and the case has been committed to the Crown Court.  If introduced, the new rules will cap the reduction at a maximum of one third and this will only be available up to and including the first hearing in the Magistrates Court. 

            The drop in discount is also quicker.  The current guideline allows a 25% reduction after a trial date has been set, the consultation proposes that this be reduced to 20% and is only available for 14 days after the first hearing.

            For a plea at the Court door (i.e. just before trial) the current guideline proposes a 10% reduction, but also allows this to be applied once trial has commenced. The consultation adopts a more sophisticated approach, with a figure of between 20 and 10% being selected based on a sliding scale between the date the 20% reduction expires and the commencement of trial.  After that, the consultation allows the figure to drop lower, even to 0, meaning  there is unlikely to be any significant discount for a guilty plea during trial.

            The aim of the consultation is to increase certainty.  However in light of the implications of the new setnencing guidelines on health and safety offences the effecct could be significant for a number of reasons:

            • The reduction of the time to plead guilty and obtain the maximum discount means that the window between receiving prosecution papers and first appearance at the Magistrates Court is the only opportunity to negotiate a basis of plea with the prosecution. For large or complex cases this is unlikely to be sufficient. This may lead to more adjournments or to more tactical pleas of not guilty where corporate defendants aim to establish key issues supporting a particular categorisation under the guidelines through expert evidence and hearings of specific issues before pleading guilty.

            • The reduction, although on the face of it relatively insignificant, of the discount for a guilty plea from 25% to 20% thereafter could be of huge financial significnace to large corporate defendants.  For example, the difference between a one third and a 20% fine for a defendant facing a £3m fine is £400,000.

            • Health and safety cases are often complex and the issues between the parties often only narrow as trial approaches.  The reduced incentive to plead guilty before trial may actually increase the burden on the Courts, as more cases are taken to trial as an exercise in “brinksmanship” to obtain favourable bases of plea.

            Related people

            Paul Matthews

            • Partner // Head of Regulatory (Yorkshire and North East)

            We use cookies to give you the best user experience on our website. Please let us know if you accept our use of cookies.

            Learn More

            Your Privacy

            When you visit any web site, it may store or retrieve information on your browser, mostly in the form of cookies. We mainly use this information to ensure the site works as you expect it to, and to learn how we can improve the experience in the future. The information does not usually directly identify you, but it can give you a more personalised web experience.
            Because we respect your right to privacy, you can choose not to allow some types of cookies. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change permissions. However, blocking some types of cookies may prevent certain site functionality from working as expected

            Functional cookies


            These cookies let you use the website and are required for the website to function as expected.

            These cookies are required

            Tracking cookies

            Anonymous cookies that help us understand the performance of our website and how we can improve the website experience for our users. Some of these may be set by third parties we trust, such as Google Analytics.

            They may also be used to personalise your experience on our website by remembering your preferences and settings.

            Marketing cookies

            These cookies are used to improve and personalise your experience with our brands. We may use these cookies to show adverts for our products, or measure the performance of our adverts.