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Choosing Whether to Plead Guilty or Not Guilty

When facing criminal charges, one of the most crucial decisions a defendant must make is whether to plead guilty or not guilty. This decision can significantly impact the outcome of a case and potentially shape a person’s future. Understanding the factors involved and the legal implications is essential in making an informed choice. 

Understanding the Charges

The first step in making this decision is to gain a thorough understanding of the charges. It is crucial to review the allegations, the supporting evidence and potential penalties associated with each charge. It is crucial to seek legal advice from an experienced criminal lawyer who can help explain the charges, their consequences and the possible defences available.

Pleading Guilty

Pleading guilty is a formal acknowledgement of the defendant’s responsibility for the criminal charges. By pleading guilty the defendant is accepting that they committed the offence as charged and is admitting guilt before the court.

Prior to entering any plea, particularly a plea of guilty, it is important to obtain legal advice and to understand that to find any defendant guilty the prosecution has the burden of gathering and presenting in Court sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty of each element of the offence.  This may include that the accused had the necessary “mens rea” otherwise known as the intention to commit the offence.

If a plea of guilty is entered, the court will proceed to sentencing, considering factors such as the nature of the offence, the defendant’s criminal history and any mitigating circumstances.  The Crimes (Sentencing Procedure) Act 1999 (NSW) sets out the procedure the Court will apply in deciding a sentence.  In particular s21A of the Act sets out the aggravating, mitigating and other factors to be considered by the Court in the sentencing decision.

It is important that during any sentencing submissions all available evidence is presented to the Court to address the factors set out in the Act.  This may include medical reports, psychology reports, references from members of the community, evidence of the good character or achievements of the accused and evidence of family support.

Call us to arrange a free 20 minute no obligation consultation that includes case evaluation and cost estimate.

Penalties for Pleading Guilty

Sentencing Discount for Pleading Guilty 

When a defendant enters a plea of guilty, it often results in a reduced sentence. This discount is typically capped at 25 percent. Section 22 of the Crimes (Sentencing Procedure) Act 1999 (NSW) describes the sentencing discounts for a plea of guilty to a non-indictable offence and Division 1A of the Act for a guilty plea to an indictable offence. As a consequence, opting for an early guilty plea can significantly impact the outcome of a case, the penalty imposed and potentially determine whether the defendant may serve time in prison or remain within the community.

Annulment of a Conviction 

Section 4 of the Crimes (Appeal and Review) Act 2001 (NSW) states that where a court has convicted a person in the person’s absence that person may make an application to have the conviction annulled.  This may be useful where a defendant has for various reasons failed to appear in court and a conviction has been made in the defendant’s absence.  

Section 5 Threshold and Imprisonment

Section 5 of the Crimes (Sentencing Procedure) Act 1999 (NSW) sets out what is often described as the section 5 threshold.  This section ensures that the penalty of imprisonment is used only where the Court considers that there are no appropriate alternatives.  Section 5 provides that a Court must not sentence an offender to imprisonment unless the Court is satisfied, having considered all possible alternatives, that no alternate penalty other than imprisonment is appropriate.

Genuine Plea and Convenience Plea

While courts recognise that people may choose to plead guilty for various reasons, such as to avoid anxiety and stress caused by any hearing, it is crucial to understand that this plea is an unequivocal admission of guilt.

In a notable High Court case, Maxwell v The Queen (1996) 184 CLR 501, Justices Dawson and McHugh emphasised that a guilty plea must not be “made in circumstances suggesting that it is not a true admission of guilt.”  The guilty plea must be genuine and not made under circumstances suggesting otherwise, such as ignorance, fear, duress, mistake or the desire for technical advantages. If the trial judge suspects that the guilty plea is not sincere, they must ensure an unequivocal admission of guilt or allow the defendant to enter a plea of not guilty. 

Pleading Not Guilty

Pleading not guilty means contesting the charges and requiring the prosecution to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If the defendant chooses to plead not guilty, the case will proceed to trial. During the trial, both the prosecution and the defence will have the opportunity to present their cases. The judge or jury will ultimately decide whether the charges have been proven by the prosecution beyond a reasonable doubt and whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. 

Factors to consider when contemplating a not guilty plea include:

  • False Accusations – Where the charges are based on false accusations, error in identification or any other error of the prosecution, pleading not guilty provides an opportunity to present the defendant’s version of events and refute the allegations in court.
  • Lack of Evidence – The evidence against the defendant may be insufficient, pleading not guilty allows the defendant to challenge the prosecution’s case. An experience criminal lawyer can help assess the strength of the evidence and identify any weaknesses or inconsistencies.
  • Defences – There may be a valid defence to the charges, either factual or legal, such as self defence in an assault charge, consent in a sexual assault charge or any other assault charge, or duress in many charges excluding manslaughter or murder.
  • Constitutional Rights – Pleading not guilty allows the defendant to exercise the defendant’s fundamental right to a fair trial. It ensures that the prosecution must meet the burden of proof and present convincing evidence to secure a conviction.

Why BSM Law?

Deciding whether to plead guilty or not guilty is a complex and personal choice that should not be taken lightly. It is important to always consult with an experienced criminal lawyer. The criminal lawyers at Brander Smith McKnight will provide tailored advice based on your specific circumstances. We will listen carefully to you, examine the facts of the case, including a very close and detailed examination of the police charges.  We will then clearly and simply present your legal options and the consequences of pleading guilty or not guilty.  We will ensure that your best interests both criminally and financially are served.  We provide a premium legal service without the premium prices of a big city firm.

Call us to arrange a free 20 minute no obligation consultation that includes case evaluation and cost estimate.

Brander Smith McKnight Lawyers are conveniently located at Sutherland, Parramatta, Wollongong and Sydney CBD.

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