Belfast Telegraph

Caution urged on early guilty pleas

Proposals to encourage early guilty pleas by criminals risk overlooking victims' concerns, it has been claimed.

Defendants could earn a shorter prison sentence by pleading guilty earlier under the Department of Justice suggestions.

Several MLAs expressed misgivings during an evidence session before the Assembly's Justice Committee.

Ulster Unionist Basil McCrea said: "There is a mood afoot that the impact on victims should be considered more fully. There is a feeling I think that this is a discussion between defendants and the legal process.

"I have a sense that if you were to ask the population in general would they prefer a quick decision or a decision where the appropriate sentence was passed, they would not be minded to say 'let's get it done quickly'."

According to the Courts and Tribunals Service, a sample of 500 cases indicated that 38% pleaded guilty on arraignment at the Crown Court and 41% pleaded guilty on re-arraignment before the start of the trial.

Department of Justice officials told the committee they were not accusing solicitors of failing to tell their clients about the option of a guilty plea but wanted to ensure the message was reinforced.

Early pleas can significantly cut the cost of lengthy criminal trials.

Similar studies have been carried out on the area in Great Britain, but Mr McCrea said: "Northern Ireland is not the same as Great Britain in terms of the background of engagement with the legal process and anything that looks like negotiation or tampering with the rule of law will be particularly sensitive."

The Department of Justice said there had not been universal support for the measure in England and Wales, but it added: "One conclusion was that victims who had suffered quite a serious crime were more likely to be attracted to early resolution of the case to save them from having to give evidence in court."

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