Innocent 'at risk' under plea bargains: Report warns formal system could lead to miscarriages of justice

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The Independent Online
INNOCENT people may be persuaded to plead guilty if proposals to adopt formal 'plea bargaining' into the criminal justice system are adopted. A report published today also warns that plea bargaining - agreeing to plead guilty in return for a lesser sentence - could lead to inaccurate and unfair sentences.

The report by Justice, the human rights and law reform body, has powerful support. Last week, Lord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice, expressed his 'misgivings' about plea bargains. However, the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice - due to report later this month - is known to be considering plea bargaining as a means of saving court time and money.

Currently there are only informal 'deals', where, for example, the prosecution will drop a more serious charge in return for a guilty plea to a lesser charge.

The commission has been furnished with a study by the Bar Council, which favours a formalised system of plea bargaining, a major component of justice in countries such as the United States. The report concludes it is the 'single most effective form of judicial intervention' to make savings in the ever expanding justice budget.

A recent survey by the Royal Commission found 90 per cent of barristers and more than 60 per cent of judges favoured extending plea bargaining practices. However, the Justice report, Negotiated Justice, argues it could lead to miscarriages of justice. Studies have shown that some innocent people already plead guilty to protect others, to avoid publicity, to have the matter dealt with swiftly or to secure a lesser sentence.

Justice argues a formalised plea bargaining system is not far removed from penalising those who opt for a trial.

It will also affect sentencing, for when the trial judge is making an offer of a penalty, the defendant is still protesting his innocence, making it difficult to present mitigation.

The report casts doubts on claims that plea bargaining will lead to greater efficiency, saying poor case management and the absence of proper pre-trial scrutiny are the cause of most aborted trials and wasted money. Figures for 1991 show that more than 10,000 cases were aborted and the defendant acquitted as a result of the trial judge's intervention - most of those before the trial began.

In addition, 70 per cent of defendants changed their pleas to guilty on the day they were due to start their Crown Court trial. But most of these had not consulted their barristers until the morning of the trial.

Justice argues that the earlier withdrawal of weak prosecution cases; better liaison between defence and prosecution; and earlier contact between defendant and barrister would result in greater efficiency and fairness.

Anne Owers, director of Justice, said: 'We fear that, just as safeguards have been introduced to protect suspects from undue pressure at police stations, these proposals would create just such pressures at courts. We believe any possible advantages are outweighed by the adverse risks.'

Negotiated Justice. A closer look at the implications of plea bargaining; Justice; 95a Chancery Lane, London WC2A 1DT; pounds 2.50.