The Ministry of Justice outlined its plans in December in a Green Paper, “Breaking the cycle: effective punishment, rehabilitation and sentencing of offenders”.

Christopher Kinch QC, Chairman of the CBA, said: “I am not sure the proposal will, on its own, significantly reduce late pleas of guilty. 

“The guilty defendant who delays his plea until the very moment of the trial may not be of a mind to commit to an early plea however attractive the discount. From the point of view of the Criminal Justice System an early guilty plea is clearly better, quicker and cheaper than a late guilty plea. What sometimes gets lost in this discussion is that a late guilty plea is still better than the alternative of a full scale trial. 

“I also have a concern that too much pressure may be put on defence lawyers to encourage early pleas. The relationship between a defendant and his lawyers is a delicate one which has to be based on confidence. Lawyers who begin their advice to a client with a heavy slant towards the merits of pleading guilty will find it hard to build that necessary confidence.”

He said it was not yet clear what the Government meant by “the earliest stage”, and warned that anyone considering entering an early plea should be given “full and informed advice”.

The paper also proposes increased use of restorative justice measures; introducing reforms to make offenders directly compensate victims of crime; and simplifying the sentencing framework so that judges have more discretionary powers.

The consultation period closes on 4 March 2011.