Can killers now avoid life in prison with a guilty plea?

11th Feb 2016

Claim

Recent changes to the law mean killers could avoid whole life terms by pleading guilty.

Conclusion

The new sentencing guidelines don’t change the law. If a whole life order is made in court, a guilty plea will not reduce the sentence. However, a judge will factor a guilty plea into the decision about whether to make a whole life order in the first place.

“The worst murderers should be given a chance to escape staying in prison for life by pleading guilty, according to new rules drawn up for judges.”

Daily Mail, 11 February 2016 

Suggested new guidelines for judges, published today, wouldn’t significantly change the rules on when someone stays in prison for life. They spell out what the law has said since 2005.

Sentencing for murder

Criminal courts must follow sentencing guidelines unless it is contrary to the interests of justice to do so.

The guidelines set out the required approach to sentencing, including relevant mitigating and aggravating factors in order to determine the appropriate sentence.

In the case of murder, Parliament sets out a series of starting points based on the seriousness of the offence and the age of the offender.

A judge may set a minimum term of imprisonment to be served. But if he or she doesn’t, the prisoner receives a whole life order, meaning they will never be released from prison.

If a judge gives a whole life order, then the sentence can’t be reduced by a guilty plea.

But judges must factor a guilty plea into their decision about whether or not there should be a whole life order in the first place.

New guidelines don’t change the law

This has been the position since a case decided so in 2005, so it’s incorrect to say that the new draft guidelines represent a change in the rules.

The new draft guidelines replicate the decision of the Court of Appeal in 2005, in which the Lord Chief Justice said:

“It [the court] must have regard to the guilty plea before it decides whether or not to order a whole life term. Having done so it is open to the court to decide that it is nonetheless appropriate to order a whole life term, but must then explain why the guilty plea has not affected the sentence.”

The situation is different if the court decides not to give a whole life order. In these circumstances a guilty plea can reduce a sentence by a maximum of 1/6th but never more than five years. 

The reason for the confusion is that guidelines produced in 2007 merely imply that guilty pleas should be factored into a decision about whether a whole life sentence is justified. Suggested new guidelines now make that point explicit.