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At the start of a criminal case the person accused of the crime will be asked to plead to the charges they face. They'll tell the court whether they:

  • admit the charge and plead guilty
  • deny the charge and plead not guilty

If the plea is not guilty, a date will be fixed for a trial when evidence in the case will be heard. This date may be several weeks ahead.

If the accused pleads guilty

There is no trial if the accused pleads guilty. The judge can sentence the offender right away, or the court might ask for background reports about the offender so they have enough information to decide a sentence.

If the offender pleads guilty at this stage, the judge will consider reducing the sentence they would otherwise have passed. This is known as a sentence discount and can be up to a third of the maximum sentence available.

The case may be adjourned for further information. If you're a victim you may be advised if the offender is released on bail, and if you're eligible to make a victim statement.

Bail is when a person is released from custody by a court. They'll have to agree to certain conditions before they're released, like promising to go to court or not committing any other crimes.

If the accused pleads not guilty

If the accused pleads not guilty, a trial date is set. This gives both the prosecution and defence time to organise their case and find out about witnesses and evidence. The court decides whether the accused should be released on bail.

The accused argues there's no case to answer

The accused can argue at trial that there is not enough evidence. If the judge agrees, the case can be dismissed and the accused will be free to go.

Plea in bar of trial

The accused – or their lawyer – can say they're unfit to stand trial or they were unfit at the time of the offence. If the judge agrees, the trial may be delayed or the case dismissed.

Changing of plea

If the accused originally pleads not guilty and then changes their plea during the trial, the trial will stop. If the accused pleads guilty at this stage their sentence may be reduced. The judge or sheriff will decide on the most appropriate sentence or ask for reports and decide on a later date.

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