Pleading Guilty in Singapore: Consequences & Withdrawal of Plea
What Does It Mean to Plead Guilty?
Pleading guilty means the accused admits to having committed the crime(s) he has been charged with and agrees to the charge(s) which the prosecution has brought against him.
An accused does not need to plead guilty to all charges the prosecution has raised against him and can instead plead guilty to only specific charges.
An accused may be convicted based on the plea of guilt.
Why Might an Accused Wish to Plead Guilty?
An accused may plead guilty if he is remorseful for the offence committed.
Pleading guilty is viewed as an indicator of remorse and is a mitigating factor when the judge considers the punishment to be meted out to the accused.
This means that pleading guilty can help to lower the punishment received for committing the offence.
Why Might an Accused Wish Not to Plead Guilty?
By not pleading guilty, an accused claims trial, meaning that the prosecution will need to bring evidence to prove to the court that the accused is guilty.
An accused may therefore not wish to plead guilty if he believes that the prosecution does not have enough evidence for him to be convicted of the offence(s) he has been charged with. If there is insufficient evidence, the judge may find him innocent and acquit him of the charge(s).
Due to the difficulty in retracting a plea of guilt, the accused may consider claiming trial if he is unsure of whether there is enough evidence to convict him. This will allow the judge to review the evidence and decide whether the accused is in fact guilty of the offence (all of which will be explained in detail below).
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When Should the Accused Plead Guilty?
The accused can plead guilty at any point of the criminal proceedings before the judge has made a decision on whether to convict the accused.
For example, the accused can first plead guilty where he is first officially charged in court. If so, the case can move straight to sentencing.
Even if the accused claims trial, he can subsequently inform the court that he intends to plead guilty during the Pre-Trial Conference (PTC) or Criminal Case Disclosure Conference (CCDC, if applicable).
The PTC is a meeting between the prosecution and accused before the trial to prepare for the trial and settle administrative matters.
A CCDC may be applied for by the accused during the PTC wherein the prosecution and accused exchange evidence, and only applies for certain categories of offences listed in the Second Schedule of the Criminal Procedure Code.
If the accused states that he intends to plead guilty at the pre-trial stage, the court will fix a date for his plea to be taken.
The accused may also plead guilty at the start of the trial when the charge(s) are read out, or mid-trial after the prosecution has presented its evidence.
Pleading Guilty Electronically
It is possible to plead guilty electronically for certain offences. This includes offences committed under the Road Traffic Act and Parking Places Act. For example, for speeding or not slowing down at a pedestrian crossing.
For minor offences which are usually punishable by a fine, the accused may be given an “offer of composition” which may be paid at an AXS station. If the amount stated in the “offer of composition” is paid, there is no need to enter a guilty plea, and the matter is considered settled.
However, if the “offer of composition” has expired, the accused may still plead guilty electronically by entering a plea of guilt at an AXS station before 5pm of the day on which he is required to attend court and pay in advance the fine fixed by the supervising Magistrate.
The Registrar of the State Courts will subsequently send to the supervising Magistrate a record of the guilty plea and the fine paid. The Magistrate may then convict the accused and record the fine paid as the sentence for the offence.
What Happens After the Accused Pleads Guilty?
After the accused states that he wishes to plead guilty, a statement of facts detailing the offence will be read to the accused. If the accused disagrees with parts of the statement of facts, the court may adjourn to allow the prosecutor and accused resolve the disagreement.
If the accused fully agrees with the statement of facts and the court is satisfied that the accused understands the nature, consequences and punishment for the offence, the plea of guilt may be accepted and the accused will be convicted.
The court will then proceed to hear arguments from the prosecution on sentencing (e.g. the charges to be taken into consideration), followed by the mitigation plea of the accused, before passing the accused’s sentence.
It must be noted that, the court may however reject the accused’s guilty plea in certain circumstances (explained below).
Accused’s mitigation plea
During a mitigation plea, the court will hear any plea in mitigating (i.e. lightening) the sentence to be imposed on the accused. The accused should therefore raise any facts in mitigating his plea, including the fact that he had pleaded guilty.
Other facts include any disagreements with the prosecution’s arguments on sentencing and any factors that are relevant to the sentence (for example, the accused making restitution to the victim in a dishonest misappropriation case).
For more information, please refer to our other article on mitigation pleas.
Can the Court Reject a Guilty Plea?
The court may reject a guilty plea if it finds that the accused’s plea of guilt was:
- Not made by the accused himself (e.g. it was made by his lawyer instead);
- Made without understanding the true nature and consequences of his plea; and
- Not made without qualification against the charges brought against him (e.g. the accused disagrees with the statement of facts as mentioned above).
If a fact raised by the accused in his mitigation plea (mentioned above) materially affects whether he should have been convicted of the offence, the court is also obliged to reject the plea of guilt.
Furthermore, the court can only accept a plea of guilt for offences punishable by death after the prosecution has first proven its case via evidence at trial. (This is unlike offences not punishable by death, where the prosecution need not put forth evidence to prove its case in a trial if the accused decides to plead guilty. The court can then proceed to convict and sentence the accused, as mentioned above.)
What might be the possible outcome(s) of the court rejecting a guilty plea?
Should the court reject the guilty plea, the issue of whether the accused is guilty will proceed to trial, at which point the prosecution will need to adduce evidence to prove that the accused is guilty of the offence(s) charged.
Can the Accused Retract his Guilty Plea?
In very exceptional cases, it is possible for an accused to retract a plea of guilt by raising facts at the mitigation stage which affect whether he should have been convicted of the offence. If he does so, the court will be obliged to reject the plea of guilt such that the issue of whether the accused is guilty of the charge proceeds to trial.
This can happen if the accused claims that the plea of guilt was not made voluntarily such as due to misunderstanding the charge or if the plea of guilt was made involuntarily under pressure. If the accused does so, he will need to prove that the guilty plea was made involuntarily, at which point it will be retracted.
For example, if the accused thought that he was pleading guilty to a different charge from what he was actually being charged with, this could be found to be misunderstanding the charge such that the plea of guilt would not be valid.
In a previous case, an accused, was initially charged with fraud for filing a claim for a non-existent work accident for his company. After he pleaded guilty however, he stated during mitigation that he might have gotten the date of the work accident wrong when filing the claim.
If this was true, it could have meant that the work accident had in fact happened, just not on the date that the accused had initially provided when filing the claim – and as a result, the accused actually had no intention to defraud his company.
Due to how the mistake affected whether the accused had legally committed fraud, the court allowed him to retract his guilty plea.
It may also be possible to prove that the accused did not understand the nature and consequences of pleading guilty, such that the court should not accept the plea of guilt.
What happens if the accused’s attempt to retract his guilty plea fails?
If the sentencing judge hears the accused’s arguments for retracting the plea of guilt but nonetheless accepts the plea of guilt and proceeds to sentence the accused, the accused can seek for the conviction to be set aside (i.e. cancelled) in a criminal revision.
In a criminal revision, the accused would need to show that the plea of guilt was not taken in a proper manner such as without the accused fully understanding the statement of facts and the charge, or that the plea of guilt was made under pressure.
For more information, please refer to our other article on criminal revisions in Singapore.
When might it be advisable to retract a guilty plea?
It might be advisable to retract a guilty plea where the accused has clear evidence to support his claim that his guilty plea was invalid. Without clear evidence, the accused’s claim is likely to fail, and he would then be wasting time and costs.
That said, an accused should still raise all relevant issues at the mitigation plea stage, and the court will decide whether the issues raised affect the validity of the guilty plea.
If you have been charged with an offence in Singapore and are unsure if the prosecution has sufficient evidence to prove that you are guilty, it is best to seek legal advice from a criminal lawyer on whether to plead guilty.
The decision should not be taken lightly as once a plea of guilt has been given, it may be difficult to retract it unless there are exceptional circumstances.
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