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Pleading Guilty and Representing Yourself

Defendants in criminal matters often represent themselves in court. This is particularly the case when a person is pleading guilty to minor offences such as traffic offences or minor summary offences like disorderly behaviour in public. If you are considering representing yourself in court in a criminal matter and pleading guilty, it is important that take into account the below considerations.

Pleading guilty: Are you actually guilty?

This may seem like a straightforward question, but there may be more to it than you realise. Many criminal offences are made up of a physical act (the actus reus) and a mental element (the mens rea). You should not plead guilty without making sure that you fulfil both the physical and the mental elements of the offence.

When a person is charged with offences, they are provided with a charge sheet which is accompanied by a summary of the facts. This is what the police alleged occurred. You should check this carefully and make sure that it accurately reflects what happened. If there are statements in the summary that you think are incorrect, but you still want to plead guilty to the offence, you should contact the prosecution and ask them to amend the facts so that you can plead guilty.

If you have been charged with multiple offences and you are guilty of all of them, there  may still be unfair duplication between charges. It is common for the police to lay two or more alternate charges arising from the same facts. Where a person is willing to plead guilty, the prosecution will often accept a plea to only one of these charges and agree to withdraw the others. Some examples of this include where a person is charged with assault police and resist police, or possess cannabis and supply cannabis, arising out of the same incident. While the police are not always agreeable to withdrawing charges in this situation, it is always worth talking to them about the possibility or getting a lawyer to do so on your behalf.

Pleading guilty: Can the prosecution prove it?

If you are guilty, you should still ask yourself whether the prosecution can prove you guilty. In some cases, this may mean adjourning the matter to obtain the brief of evidence. The brief of evidence is a copy of all the evidence the prosecution is relying on against you.
If the brief of evidence shows weaknesses in the prosecution case, it may be advisable not to plead guilty. Alternately, you may be able to use the weakness of the case to negotiate for some or all of the charges to be withdrawn.

Are there any defences available?

Even if you committed the physical act that makes up the offence, you may have a defence available. This may be that what happened was an accident, or that you were acting in self-defence. It is always a good idea to seek legal advice to make absolutely sure that there is no defence available to you before you plead guilty.

Mitigating factors

If you decide to go ahead and represent yourself when pleadign guilty, you will have to present a plea in mitigation in court. This is where you tell the court about your circumstances and the circumstances of the offence. This may include your employment history, academic record, character references from people who know you (such as former employers or business associates) and can attest that the offending was out of character, that you have a prior good record (if it was your first criminal offence) and any particularly difficult circumstances that contributed to the offence.

If the offence arose because of a drug or alcohol problem, evidence that you have taken steps to address the problem, such as undertaking a rehab program, will be relevant to the court when deciding on your sentence. If you have apologised to the victim or tried to make amends – for example, by paying for damage caused – this is also a relevant mitigating factor that the court needs to know. If you are experiencing financial hardship, make sure the court knows your situation and how much income and expenses you have in case it is considering imposing a fine.

Court etiquette when pleading guilty

When you go to court, you should dress neatly and conservatively and arrive on time. Court can often take all day as the list may be busy and your matter may not be called on first. If you are facing a period of license suspension, do not drive to court. When you arrive, find out which courtroom your matter is in and let the court staff know that you are there and that you are pleading guilty.

When your matter is called on, each charge will be read out and you will be asked how you plead. You will need to say ‘guilty’ to each charge you are pleading guilty to. You will then be asked to tell the court anything you have to say about the offence and your background. If you need more time to prepare, you can advise the court that you are pleading guilty and ask for an adjournment to another date that suits you.

If you would like to speak to a lawyer prior to representing yourself in a criminal matter or in any other legal matter, please contact Armstrong Legal. 

Fernanda Dahlstrom

This article was written by Fernanda Dahlstrom

Fernanda Dahlstrom has a Bachelor of Laws, a Bachelor of Arts and a Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice. She has also completed a Master’s in Writing and Literature. Fernanda practised law for eight years, working in criminal defence, child protection and domestic violence law in the Northern Territory and in family law in Queensland.

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