Minister urges earlier guilty pleas
Criminals are to be encouraged to admit their guilt under fresh proposals to protect victims and speed up cases.
Up to a third off sentences for serious crimes may be granted for those pleading guilty at the earliest possible stage. Currently, the magistrates' system is clogged with cases where the defendant delays their guilty plea.
Providing greater certainty about the reduction of sentence available for an admission and earlier clarity about what the prosecution case involves are among the options being put out to consultation.
Justice Minister David Ford said: "Encouraging guilty pleas has the potential to reduce waste in the system and free up more court time, reduce delay in criminal cases, increase public confidence and, perhaps most importantly, reduce the burden on victims and witnesses."
The consultation paper focuses on encouraging those who will eventually plead guilty to do so earlier.
Options include enshrining in legislation the credit to be allowed for an early plea and making the prosecution case against the accused available earlier.
Mr Ford added: "This is not to say that we want to encourage more guilty pleas overall, or to diminish the presumption of innocence. Rather, the options set out in this paper are focused on encouraging those offenders who will eventually plead guilty to do so earlier."
He said some people may understandably feel that if someone has committed a crime they should never get any credit for admitting their guilt.
"But we need to balance this against the impact that late guilty pleas can have on all those involved in the criminal justice processes, not least the victim," he said. "I am clear, however, that there should be no new incentives to plead guilty."
Currently victims can face months or even years of waiting for cases to reach the Crown court. The anticipation of giving evidence in cases like rape can increase stress levels at having to face their alleged attackers.