S v Recorder of Manchester and Others: HL 1971

S, a 16 year old boy pleaded guilty to attempted rape before a juvenile court. The magistrates adjourned the case for inquiry reports. On the adjourned hearing, his legal representative referred to evidence of the boy’s mental condition, and asked for the boy to be permitted to withdraw his plea of guilty and to substitute a plea of not guilty. The magistrates held that they had no power to permit this, and went on to make a hospital order on the plea of guilty. When hearing an application by a defendant to withdraw a plea of guilty, the question was not simply whether the plea was unequivocal; it is important that it should be freely made, given its status as a public acknowledgement and confession of guilt. The concept of ‘conviction’ in the sections at issue was that of a finding of guilt, but not a formal order rendering the court functus officio: ‘The finding of guilt may involve reaching a conclusion in regard to disputed or contested facts. It may involve proceeding on the basis of or ‘accepting’ a confession made in court by way of an unequivocal and unambiguous plea of guilty which so far as the court can tell was intentionally made with full appreciation of all that it involved.’
Lord Morris of Borth-y-Gest said: ‘If, before the court has completed its task in regard to the case, an application to withdraw the plea is made and if it is made for reasons the court deems valid and which perhaps it had previously had no opportunity of considering, is the court powerless to accede to it? It would be lamentable if that were so. The court might feel that having regard to the reasons advanced it would be wholly wrong to hold a person to some previous acknowledgement of guilt. The desire of any court must be to ensure, so far as possible, that only those are punished who are in fact guilty. The duty of a court to clear the innocent must be equal or superior in importance to its duty to convict and punish the guilty. Guilt may be proved by evidence. But also it may be confessed. The court will, however, have great concern, if any doubt exists as to whether a confession was intended or as to whether it ought really ever to have been made.’
Lord MacDermott said: ‘The evidence relevant to the commission of an offence is generally relevant to the sentence. That part of the hearing which is directed to the sentence may well cast new light on the question of guilt or innocence. I think it is safe to say that this has long been recognised and the tenor of English law has been against erecting any barrier between these two parts or stages which would place them, as it were, in watertight compartments and so reduce the scope of judicial ascertainment and discretion . . Every experienced judge knows that, even in uncontested matters, the truth has a habit of emerging in bits and pieces, and that the legal ingredients of the offence charged may not be fully understood by the accused . . Once made, a mistaken plea may be properly accepted and the mistake may never stand revealed. But if, as can happen, the truth comes to light during the second stage of the proceedings, when the question of what to do with the accused is under consideration, why should it not be acted upon and a changed plea of Not Guilty allowed where the interests of justice so require?’
Lord Reid said: ‘Much of the difficulty has arisen from the fact that ‘conviction’ is commonly used with two different meanings. It often is used to mean final disposal of a case and it is not uncommon for it to be used as meaning a finding of guilt. It is proper to say that a plea cannot be changed after ‘conviction’ in the former sense. But it does not at all follow that a plea cannot be changed after ‘conviction’ in the latter sense. It is perfectly true that ‘conviction’ is used in this latter sense in the Magistrates’ Courts Act, 1952, and a number of other statutes. But I cannot infer from that any intention of the legislature to alter as regards summary jurisdiction the old rule that a plea can be changed at any time before final disposal of the case.’
Lord Morris of Borth-y-Gest, Lord MacDermott
[1971] AC 481
Magistrates Courts Act 1952 13(3) 14(3)
England and Wales
Cited by:
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A court sentencing a youth who had been committed to it for sentence, had all the powers of the original court, including the power to accept a change of plea. . .
CitedRegina v Mason CACD 18-Nov-2004
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CitedRevitt, Borg and Barnes v Director of Public Prosecutions Admn 8-Sep-2006
The defendants appealed against refusal of leave to withdraw their pleas of guilty. They argued that the current practice infringed their human rights.
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CitedChallen v Challen and Another ChD 27-May-2020
Forfeiture rule disapplied after spousal abuse
The claimant sought the disapplication of the forfeiture rule. She had been convicted of the manslaughter of her seriously abusive husband. The court considered whether a conviction for murder set aside and replaced with one of manslaughter was a . .

These lists may be incomplete.
Updated: 11 May 2021; Ref: scu.183478