A defendant can plead guilty and then seek to challenge that conviction as being unsafe as evidenced in the case of SAS sniper Danny Nightingale.
The lawyers for Mr Nightingale argued that he had been placed under ‘improper pressure’ to plead guilty at a military court and that his conviction was unsafe.
The Court of Appeal today quashed his convictions and have ordered a re-trial.
Valid guilty pleas have three basic elements.
1. The court accepting the plea must have jurisdiction.
2. The defendant must be competent to make the decision to plead guilty.
3. The decision must be voluntary and reasonably well-informed.
It is important for courts to satisfy themselves that defendants have exercised free will. The Court would have regard to whether a defendant can understand the proceedings and has ‘sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding’.
In relation to whether a plea was voluntary then it is important that a defendant understands the consequences of pleading. At a minimum, a defendant must be made aware of the main constitutional rights being relinquished. These include the privilege against self-incrimination, right to trial by jury, and right to confront one's accusers.
It is also essential that a defendant understands the nature of the charges against them and the maximum possible sentence.
It is important that defendants’ understand that where a guilty plea is reluctantly entered even if this is a result of counsel’s strong advice, this would not be sufficient to argue that the plea is not voluntary.
In the case of R V Wilford (2007) EWCA Crim 2175 Hughes LJ commented: “Although it is well accepted that this court has unrestricted jurisdiction under S2(1) of the Criminal Appeal Act 1968 to entertain an appeal against conviction based on an appellants guilty plea cases were such appeals are brought and succeed are extremely rare. The Court is rightly and for obvious reasons very reluctant to allow a defendant to go back on a plea of guilty. The decision whether to plead guilty is often a very difficult one. It has to be taken in circumstances of considerable stress and with all the pressure that are inherent in the situation. It is not uncommon for defendants subsequently to have second thoughts about whether they have done the right thing. But that by itself does not entitle them to revisit the decision. In all ordinary circumstances the decision – a solemn one, made in circumstances which emphasize the importance of finality – will be binding and cannot be revisited however much later development may cause the defendant to regret it.”
By criminal appeals solicitor and partner, Correna Platt