Mark Shanks looks at the practicalities of appealing a conviction when a defendant pleads guilty in the Magistrates’ Court. There is a way…
In these days of cutbacks and unrepresented defendants, justice can easily become rushed. This inevitably leads to an increase in the occurrence of defendants entering guilty pleas to charges that are not an accurate reflection of what they accept happened. This clearly puts the defendant in a difficult position, as s/he was the one who took the decision to plead guilty. I do not refer to the “plea on a basis”/Newton Hearing scenario but where the charge itself does not match the offence committed but a plea was entered anyway.
There is a remedy
The remedy is not a simple one; however, it is there and it is one that can reset the whole process. Once a defendant enters a plea of guilty it may be days, weeks or months before they attempt to backtrack.
From the Magistrates’ to the Crown Court
In the case of pleas being incorrectly entered in the Magistrates Court, an appeal against conviction should be listed in the Crown Court. It should be made clear that the plea entered was equivocal.
The Crown Court judge, along with magistrates, will then hear from the Defendant (now referred to as the Appellant). The Appellant will give sworn testimony, subject to cross examination and exploration from the respondent and bench. It is for a judge and his/her colleagues to decide whether there is a prima facie case that the plea was equivocal, based on the Appellant’s account.
Record of the lower court
If the Court is of the view that there is no prima facie case then, barring outstanding issues (such as sentence) that will be an end to the matter. However, if they feel that his/her plea was equivocal then the case will need to be adjourned in order that a signed affidavit is obtained from either the chair or the clerk of the court which took the initial guilty plea.
Often there is little or no record of use from the lower court, as it cannot be reasonably expected for the clerk or chair to remember a specific guilty plea, so there will often be little resistance to the Appellant’s account.
Case law for the procedure
The key case relating to this process is Rochdale Justices, ex parte Allwork  3 All ER 434. Should the process be successful the case to follow is Plymouth Justices, ex parte Hart  QB 950
Clearly, courts will not be keen for this type of application to become commonplace but the fault often lies with the court of first instance and therefore should be a further incentive to make sure proper time is taken to look after the interests of all those before the courts – legally represented or not.
If there is a gradual rise in the use of this procedure, it may even highlight the importance of all defendants having proper legal help and representation at every stage. Prevention is far less expensive than the cure.
Central Chambers has a criminal team with experience in all types of criminal proceedings including the practical application of the above procedure.