The Sentencing Council has issued new guidelines governing the discount offered to defendants who plead guilty. Stephen Barnfield takes a look at the new guidelines and considers what they mean for defendants.

The courts have always encouraged early guilty pleas by awarding a credit 'discount' of up to one third where a defendant - company or individual - accepts guilt at an early stage. Later pleas often attract lesser discounts.

Whilst couched in terms of a 'discount', this often operates more as a threat: challenge the case against you and you risk losing the discount.

In the regulatory world, with significantly increased fines now becoming the norm, such fractions are often significant - one third off a £3,000,000 fine is well worth having.

New guidelines in force from 1 June 2017 formalise the sliding scale of discount available - one third for a plea at the first occasion down to one tenth for a late plea on anticipation of a trial. Press coverage of the issue has focussed on how quickly credit may be lost.

However, it is important to note that the new guidelines still make provision for complex cases where advice (and possibly expert input) is required. Health and safety prosecutions will often fall into this category - guilt or innocence is often a matter of careful technical assessment rather than simple acknowledgement.

In such cases, it is still vital to seek proper advice early and to challenge and robustly defend the precise terms of the case you face - a one third discount might sound like a lot to gamble but the courts recognise the complexity of regulatory prosecutions and one third would be a poor discount if the proper outcome were an acquittal or far greater reduction in the base line fine.