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 Powers of the courts - reduction in custodial sentences 
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Home > Lecture notes >  English Legal System >  Sentencing - powers >  Powers of the courts - reduction in custodial sentences 

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The reduction in sentence for a guilty plea changed in July 2007, the full details are available from the Sentencing Guidelines Council website, here.


  1. The court decides sentence for the offence(s) taking into account aggravating and mitigating factors and any other offences that have been formally admitted (TICs)

  2. The court selects the amount of the reduction by reference to the sliding scale

  3. The court applies the reduction

  4. When pronouncing sentence the court should usually state what the sentence would have been if there had been no reduction as a result of the guilty plea.

Reduction for plea of guilty

A defendant can get a reduction in his sentence based upon the stage in the proceedings at which he pleads guilty. The reduction is on a sliding scale from a one third and in some cases even more.



A defendant who pleads not guilty plea for tactical reasons (such as to retain privileges whilst on remand), will get very little, if any, discount.


Greater reduction for an early plea

Where the defendant indicates that he wishes to plead guilty he will receive a discount off his sentence for an early guilty plea.


"Cracked" trials

The idea is to encourage guilty defendants to admit their guilt and avoid the need for a trial.  Trials are expensive and time consuming.  Sometimes a defendant will change his plea just before trial or during the trial; these are known as "cracked trials".


(R v Wilson, The Times 12 February 2004)

The guilty plea has to be made at the first available opportunity, not at some later stage .

Statute based

A reduction in sentence for a guilty plea is enshrined in statute in Section 144 Criminal Justice Act 2003


Caught 'red-handed'

A reduction may be withheld in some cases, for example on the basis of dangerousness.  Where an offender is caught ‘red-handed’ the reduction will be one fifth.  The government had wanted it removed completely when there is overwhelming evidence.


Sentencing Guidelines Council

Stages in the proceedings

First reasonable opportunity






Door of the court/ after trial has begun


1/3 cut in sentence


Up to

1/4 cut in sentence



Up to 1/10 cut in sentence


No reduction

Proportionate reduction


Some historical detail

The practice of reducing sentences after guilty pleas is long established.  (It appeared in section 48 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 then in section 152 of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000).

Section 152 was re-enacted in almost identical terms in the Criminal Justice Act 2003, as

144 Reduction in sentences for guilty pleas
(1) In determining what sentence to pass on an offender who has pleaded guilty to an offence in proceedings before that or another court, a court must take into account—
(a) the stage in the proceedings for the offence at which the offender indicated his
intention to plead guilty, and
(b) the circumstances in which this indication was given.
(2) In the case of an offence the sentence for which falls to be imposed under subsection (2) of section 110 or 111 of the Sentencing Act, nothing in that subsection prevents the court, after taking into account any matter referred to in subsection (1) of this section, from imposing any sentence which is not less than 80 per cent of that specified in that subsection.


June 2006

The Lord Chief Justice called together a strong Court of Appeal of 5 judges to hear an appeal by the Attorney General against the unduly lenient sentence of a man who raped and indecently assaulted (and took photographs of the acts) a 12-week-old baby.

Alan Webster 40 from Hatfield had his minimum jail term increased from six to eight years. The sentence of his accomplice, Tanya French, remained the same.


Although Webster is able to apply for parole his depravity was such that it is possible he will die in jail. Webster raped a baby, police had photographic evidence of the attack.

The Lord Chief Justice referred to The Sentencing Guidelines Council the court's misgivings about the discount available when an offender pleads guilty even though - as in this case - he is caught red-handed.

Similarly, Craig Sweeney, abducted a three-year-old, he also had his life sentence cut by a third even though he was caught with his victim.


It meant Webster could hope to leave jail after six years and Sweeney after five.


The Sentencing Guidelines Council is a quango dominated by judges which has clashed repeatedly with ministers over sentencing for murder, burglary and other serious crimes. Lord Phillips suggested last autumn that long jail terms are 'barbaric'.


July 2007

The Sentencing Guidelines Council published a revised guideline on discount for guilty plea.

Key changes:

(1) Whilst the presumption remains that a reduction should be made for a guilty plea at the earliest opportunity, the Council has concluded that a lower reduction of 20 per cent may be appropriate in certain circumstances. In reaching this decision the Council accepted the advice of the Sentencing Advisory Panel which consulted widely on the issue.

(2) The Council has also issued additional guidance about when “first reasonable opportunity” arises. This includes the first time that a defendant appears before a court and has the opportunity to plead guilty.

The guideline states:

“The court may consider that it would be reasonable to have expected an indication of willingness even earlier, perhaps under interview.”

Reduction of sentence for assisting the prosecution

R v P & Blackburn (2007) CA


Whole case here

Queen's Evidence; offenders who assist the prosecution can have their sentences reviewed even after they had been appealed.


[Sentencing - reduction in sentence for assisting the police]

DD gave assistance to police in separate murder enquiries which resulted in the conviction of those responsible.  The sentences they received had not taken account of assistance they had given.


Held:  Sections 71 to 75 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 created a statutory framework which formalised and developed well established common law principles, known as “Queen's evidence”.


Unlike the common-law arrangements by which discounts for a guilty plea ought normally to reflect the time when it was tendered, for the purposes of a review, any discount should continue to reflect the extent and nature of the assistance given or offered.


In only the most exceptional case, would the appropriate level of reduction exceed three quarters of the total sentence which would otherwise be passed, and the normal level would be a reduction of somewhere between one half and two thirds of that sentence.


Both defendants were given reduced sentences

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