Letter: Better safeguards in plea negotiation

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The Independent Online
Sir: We have read with interest Christopher Sallon and Anthony Burton's arguments for a regulated form of plea negotiation, subject to various safeguards, in the English criminal courts ('Please, m'lud, I'll have that sentence', 11 December).

One of these supposed safeguards would be that the defendant 'should at all times be represented and initiate the bargain'.

We have recently completed research on the quality of legal representation for criminal defendants, and we have found that it is structured in various ways precisely to produce a guilty plea. Often such pleas are based on the failure of the defendants' own lawyers to protect their clients from oppressive police questioning or otherwise to prepare adequately the defence case.

The Royal Commission on Criminal Justice has also reported this week that in no less than 70 per cent of cases in the Crown Court where there are late changes of plea to guilty, the defence barristers only saw their clients for the first time on the morning of the trial.

Even worse, in more than a thousand cases per annum, defence barristers allow guilty pleas to be entered in order to obtain sentence discounts, despite their belief that the clients are likely to be acquitted at full trial. This is directly contrary to the Bar's own professional codes of conduct.

The lesson from research evidence is clear - we should all be very wary of expedient reforms advocated by lawyers in which they put themselves forward as providing essential safeguards.

Yours sincerely,

MICHAEL McCONVILLE

LEE BRIDGES

School of Law

University of Warwick

Coventry

11 December

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