Letter: When the innocent discover that pleading guilty is not a bargain court

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Sir: I was very pleased to see that your newspaper ('Innocent 'at risk' under plea bargains', 1 June) had highlighted the issue of plea bargaining and the excellent report on this produced by Justice. Liberty has, over the years, received a number of complaints from individuals who have pleaded guilty following pressure from lawyers and others, only to find that there is virtually nothing that they can then do to overturn that decision - despite the fact that they have good grounds for claiming their innocence.

Plea bargaining is supposedly based on the principle that pleas of guilt demonstrate contrition, but on closer inspection proposals for increasing the practice are devoid of any principle at all.

The Bar Council's proposals suggest that the difference between pleading guilty several months after arrest, once all the prosecution evidence has been disclosed, and being convicted at trial should be some 30 per cent or, say, three years off a 10 year sentence. I find it difficult to discern the principle involved in this given that the differing sentence will be given for exactly the same crime.

The legal premise that plea bargaining will damage is the presumption of innocence and the right to expect the prosecution to have to prove its case. Innocent people do plead guilty under pressure, and it is very likely that the numbers who do so will increase if plea bargaining is put on a formal footing and the pressure to plead guilty is increased.

It has been said that plea bargaining is only about putting pressure on the guilty to admit their guilt at the earliest possible stage so that the precious resources of the criminal justice system can be reserved for those who deserve it. Therefore, the innocent have nothing to fear.

However, Liberty's concern is that the proposals will take away the right to a fair trial from both the innocent and the guilty. Those most at risk will be the disadvantaged who are vulnerable to such pressure. In addition, the apparent and real racism within the criminal justice system may mean some black people are less likely to co-operate and receive longer sentences as a result.

Obviously, we must constantly search for new ways of ensuring that the criminal justice system is efficient and effective. But this proposal attacks the very principles on which the system is based.

Yours faithfully,

JOHN WADHAM

Legal Oficer

Liberty

London, SE1

1 June

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