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The plea

When the defendant appears in court they will be asked to enter a plea. The defendant can plead guilty or not guilty.

If the defendant is not ready to plead, the court will decide if the defendant
stays in custody, or is released on bail(external link) between court appearances.This means that the defendant’s case will be put off to a date in either two or three weeks so they can get legal advice and decide what their plea will be.

What happens if the defendant pleads guilty?

If the defendant pleads guilty it means they admit to committing the offence they were charged with. The court will then decide what punishment (sentence) the offender will be given.

Depending on the seriousness of the charges, the court may sentence the offender straight away, or order a sentence report before sentencing the offender on a later date. These reports are prepared by probation officers and usually take a few weeks to prepare.

In some cases, you'll be given the opportunity to attend a restorative justice conference.

Where the offender admits committing the offence and it's a minor offence, they may be eligible for diversion.

What happens if the defendant pleads not guilty?

If the defendant pleads not guilty it means they are saying they did not commit the offence. The case will go to trial and the prosecutor must prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the offence.

If the charge is a Category 3 offence (an offence punishable by a prison term of two years or more), the defendant has a right to choose to be tried by a jury. The defendant should tell the court they want to be tried by a jury when they make their plea.

Can a defendant change their plea

The defendant can change their plea from not guilty to guilty at any time. If the defendant decides to plead guilty before the trial, you won't be required to give evidence in court. If the defendant pleads guilty at an early stage, the judge is required to give the defendant a reduction in sentence. That reduction gets less as time goes by.

The defendant can also change their plea from guilty to not guilty, but the court will only approve this if there are exceptional circumstances.

If the defendant pleads guilty or is found guilty after the trial, they will be sentenced by the court. Once the defendant pleads guilty or has been found guilty, they are called the offender.

Legal advice

There are duty lawyers at court who can give the defendant advice about whether to plead guilty or not guilty and help them with other matters related to the case. This is a free service. If the defendant pleads not guilty they'll need to get their own lawyer. They might be able to get legal aid to help pay their legal costs.

Victims and witnesses do not have their own lawyer in court.

Victims involvement

When sentencing an offender, the judge takes many things into account, including your victim impact statement, reports about the person who was convicted and sentences for similar cases.


The above information was adapted from Community Law Manual Online - Criminal Courts - Entering a Plea(external link) with permission from Community Law Aotearoa.

For more information see the Community Law(external link) website.

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