What does pleading guilty mean?
If you plead guilty to a criminal offence (charge) it means you accept that you committed the offence and accept the facts as alleged by the police or other prosecuting body.
The offence is contained in the prosecution notice. You should have been given a copy of this notice but if not, the court and the prosecutor will have a copy.
The prosecution facts are contained in a document called the "statement of material facts". You should check what is in this statement before you plead guilty to be sure you agree with the prosecution's version of what happened.
If you do not agree with the facts in the statement, you should seek legal advice before you plead guilty. You can seek advice from your own lawyer or from a duty lawyer.
Can I represent myself or should I get a lawyer?
You can always represent yourself in court if you wish to, however, in more serious or complicated situations it is better for you to be represented by a lawyer.
If you are appearing in the District or Supreme Court you should organise a lawyer to represent you. If you are appearing in the Children's Court you should ask to be represented by the duty lawyer if you do not have your own lawyer. If you are appearing in the Magistrates Court, you can ask the duty lawyer to represent you if you do not have your own lawyer, however, if the offence is not serious or complicated you may wish to represent yourself.
If you are not sure if you should represent yourself, you can ask the duty lawyer before you appear in court.
Click here for more information about Appearing in court on a criminal charge, including representing yourself or being represented by a lawyer.
Click here for information about Legal Aid WA's Duty Lawyer Service.
What happens in court if I plead guilty?
When you appear in court you will be asked what you want to do. If you indicate that you want to enter a plea, the charge will be read out and you will be asked what your plea will be. If you say you are pleading guilty, the court will ask the prosecutor to read out the statement of material facts. The prosecutor may also comment on the seriousness of the offence and the appropriate penalty. The penalty is referred to as your "sentence".
You or your lawyer are then given an opportunity to present a "plea in mitigation" before the court proceeds to sentence you.
At any stage during this process, the court may choose to put your matter off to another day if it considers more information should be obtained before it sentences you. This may include ordering a report called a "pre-sentence report" that provides detailed information about you. Such a report is usually obtained when the court is considering a more serious penalty but may be obtained simply to obtain more information about you.
What is a plea in mitigation?
Before the court sentences you, you or your lawyer will be given an opportunity to speak. This is called presenting a "plea in mitigation".
A "plea in mitigation" is an opportunity to provide information that will help you when the court is deciding on the appropriate sentence. As part of the plea in mitigation, you may explain why you committed the offence and tell the court about your background and personal circumstances. You can also say something about the sentence that the court could impose. For example, if the court is considering a fine, it would be useful for it to know that you are not working and will have difficulty paying a fine. The court can then consider giving you a community work order instead.
What should I include in my plea in mitigation?
You should include information that will help the court to understand your situation and encourage the court to give you a less serious penalty. You should not suggest that the offence is minor or trivial, in case the court has a different view. You should not tell the court what penalty to impose, however, you can suggest that a particular penalty might be more suitable because of your particular circumstances. For example, community work may be more suitable because you have financial difficulties.
If any of the following points apply to you, it may assist you if you include them in your plea in mitigation:
- You have a good explanation for committing the offence
- You were not involved in the offence as much as some others (you were not the "ring-leader")
- It was a one-off mistake
- You are young and inexperienced
- You have no criminal record or if you have a record, it contains nothing similar to the present offence
- You have support from family and friends and they will help to ensure you don't get into trouble again
- You have done, are doing, or will do, things to help yourself so you won't get into trouble again eg no longer associate with certain people, do an anger management course, get debt management advice, or get treatment for alcohol or drug use problems
- You co-operated with police
- You have apologised to the victim of your offence
- You have a good work history
- You are currently employed
- You are responsible for supporting your family or other people
- You have current health issues that affect your ability to cope or comply with certain court orders (eg imprisonment or community work)
What sentencing options does the court have?
When it comes to deciding on the appropriate sentence for you, the options available to the court will depend on the offence you have committed. Some offences can attract no more than a fine, while others are serious enough for imprisonment to be an option. For certain offences the court has no option and must impose a minimum fine or a minimum term of imprisonment. Some offences are State offences and others are Commonwealth offences and this also affects what the court can do when it sentences you.
For this reason it is important to know the offence you have been charged with and to seek legal advice about the possible sentence before you appear in court. Then you will know whether you should be represented and also be better prepared for your plea in mitigation if you are going to represent yourself.
To give you some idea of the types of sentences that the court may consider, the following is a list of the sentencing options available in the Magistrates Court for State offences:
- No penalty
- Conditional Release Order
- Community Based Order with or without community service work or other requirements
- Intensive Supervision Order with or without community service work or other requirements
- Suspended term of imprisonment
- Conditional suspended term of imprisonment (only an option if appearing in the Drug Court)
- Immediate imprisonment.
What other orders can the court make?
At the time it sentences you, the court may also, depending on the circumstances:
- Order you to pay court costs
- Order you to pay compensation to the victim or victims
- Order that property seized from you be forfeited to the police and/or returned to the owner
- Cancel or suspend your driver's licence
- Order the destruction of drugs or other property
- Make a spent conviction order.
If you want to apply for a spent conviction order, you must do so at the time you are sentenced. It is best to apply for it as part of your plea in mitigation.
Click here for more information about:
Spent conviction orders at the time of sentence
- Court orders for compensation and restitution
Last reviewed: 11/03/2013