If you have been charged with an offence, at an early stage you are going to have a decision to make: do you plead guilty or not guilty to the charges levelled at you?
Naturally this is a decision you should only make after having a chance to receive legal advice about your specific situation.
Below, however, we set out some general principles about pleading guilty, how it might affect your sentence, and things to account for along the way.
But First… Be Aware of What You’re Admitting
Pleading guilty is, as the name suggests, accepting that you are guilty of the crime you have been charged with including the facts to the charge.
Of course, the legal framework of criminal law in Queensland is fairly complicated. As a result, a single action or decision might have multiple different offences (all with potential defences) that could attach to it.
For example, there are multiple forms of assault, different types of charges relating to actions that caused someone’s death, and many different types of crime associated with drugs. Which of these is the most appropriate charge is not always obvious.
So while it may be that you accept you did the actions that you are accused of, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you should accept without question that the label that is being attached to it is correct.
There are significant differences in potential sentences and outcomes depending on what type of charge is brought. An unthinking guilty plea could land you with a heavier sentence than is appropriate in the circumstances.
Must the Court Take your Guilty Plea Into Account?
The Penalties and Sentences Act (which governs the sentences process generally) says that the Court:
- Must take a guilty plea into account when sentencing; and
- May reduce the sentence it would otherwise have imposed.
So, while the Court must consider your guilty plea as part of its sentencing, it is not obliged to reduce your sentence.
The reason that guilty pleas are encouraged are many, but the primary upside from the Court’s perspective is:
- Pleading guilty indicates a practice demonstration of remorse and acceptance of the consequences of your actions;
- Cooperation with the legal system is typically viewed favourably; and
- A guilty plea will save time and resources including a trial and any victim having to relive the circumstances.
Is it Better to Plead Guilty Early if You’re Going To?
With those things we’ve listed above in mind, you’ll rightly expect that an early guilty plea is viewed more favourably than a very late guilty plea. In fact, the same Act specifically mentions the Court considering the time that the guilty plea was entered.
Maintaining a not guilty plea for many months up until the last possible decision does not indicate to the Court these favourable attitudes and outcomes with as much force as an early concession might.
That said, we are not suggesting that you need to accept a guilty plea so quickly that you don’t have time to get proper legal advice about your circumstances.
So while as a very general principle, “earlier is better”, a guilty plea should not be entered lightly.
Things to Think about Before Pleading Guilty?
Just because pleading guilty might reduce your sentence it doesn’t mean that’s necessarily a good idea.
First, of course, you need to be satisfied that you are actually guilty of what you have been accused of. This means you need to have a good and proper understanding of the case that is being put against you, which is not always obvious just after you have been charged.
Next, as we mentioned above, you need to be comfortable that the actual charge that has been made against you is the correct one.
There is always a practical question to ask too: can the prosecution actually prove the case that is put against you? Just because you were charged with something, it doesn’t mean that the case is watertight. Of course, it is the job of your criminal lawyers to help you understand what the prosecution needs to prove and whether they might have problems doing that.
What if you Plead Guilty and the Court Does Not Reduce your Sentence?
As we mentioned above, while the Court is required to take your guilty plea into account it is not required to reduce your sentence as a result.
However, if it chooses for some reason not to do so, it needs to state that in handing down the sentence and explain the reasons why.
How Much Could your Sentence be Reduced by a Guilty Plea?
In Queensland there is no set mathematical formula that the Court will apply to reduce a sentence.
Instead, it will take into account all of the relevant factors, which may include other areas of mitigation outside just the guilty plea itself.
Your criminal lawyers are best placed to give you an indication, based on their experience, of how a Court on a given charge is likely to view a timely plea of guilty and the possible outcomes in usual circumstances.
Do I need a Lawyer if I’m Pleading Guilty?
You should engage criminal lawyers to help you for any charge where you are looking at a significant sentence. They can guide you on the process and speak meaningfully on your behalf to the Court.
If you have been charged (whether or not you are considering a guilty plea!) then reach out and we’ll be by your side throughout the process.