What Happens If a Person Tries to Plead Guilty While Denying Guilt?

A Court Should Refuse to Accept a Guilty Plea If the Court Is Aware That the Person Pleading Guilty Holds a Belief of Innocence.

Understanding the Court Requirement That Acceptance of a Guilty Plea Requires the Accused to Believe In Guilt

When a person is charged with an offence, and where the charge is a minor charge that comes with a minimal fine, although still possible in a serious matter, a person may believe that the charge is unwarranted as the person believes in innocence; however, for various reasons, perhaps simply to avoid the personal inconvenience of attending a Trial, among other reasons, the person may want to plead guilty.

The Law

Where a person pleads guilty, despite a belief of innocence, where the court is aware that the person lacks a belief of guilt, in the interest of ensuring genuine truth and justice, the court is required to deny acceptance of the guilty plea and instead commit the matter to Trial.  This requirement that a court serve the interest of justice by accepting only a genuine plea of guilty was stated in the case of R. v. McIlvride-Lister, 2019 ONSC 1869 where it was said:

[72]  A belief in factual innocence cannot co-exist with a plea of guilt.  Where a person, who believes herself to be innocent, pleads guilty for reasons unrelated to culpability, the result is a miscarriage of justice.  The system can only convict and sentence persons who have genuinely admitted guilt, or have been proven guilty by the prosecution.  A person who adheres to a belief that they are innocent is entitled to have a trial.

[73]  This proposition finds support in authority.  In K. (S.), Carthy J.A. ruled that a trial judge ought to have inquired into a plea when it came to light that the accused had emphatically declared his innocence to the authors of pre-sentence reports.  In striking the plea on appeal, the court observed that the accused’s “state of mind was induced by his trial counsel and perpetuated by the trial judge who failed to intervene and make inquiry as to the validity of the guilty pleas when he read the pre-sentence reports”.  Carthy J.A. sounded a note of caution about the process of plea bargaining, saying:

The system was tilted askew by the simple fact that a person protesting innocence became engaged in plea bargaining.

. . . .

Plea bargaining is an accepted and integral part of our criminal justice system but must be conducted with sensitivity to its vulnerabilities.  A court that is misled, or allows itself to be misled, cannot serve the interests of justice.

In the case of R. v. Scotney, 2005 CanLII 17917, while also relying upon the Court of Appeal case in the matter of R. v. S.K., 1995 CanLII 8926, it was similarly said that the administration of justice will disallow a plea of guilty where an accused person disbelieves the guilt.  Specifically it was stated:

[8]  I have reviewed R. v. S.K. 1995 CanLII 8926 (ON CA), [1995] 99 C.C.C. 3rd 376, wherein the Ontario Court of Appeal cited with approval the report of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee on Charge Screening, Disclosure and Resolution Discussions (1993) chaired by the Honourable G. Arthur Martin.

If the plea comprehension inquiry is desirable in the American context where ascertaining that an accused denies guilt is not fatal to the plea of guilty proceeding, it follows, in the Committee’s view that such an inquiry is even more desirable in Ontario, where a plea of guilty cannot proceed if the accused denies guilt.  The greater scope in Ontario for the courts to decline to accept a plea of guilty heightens the importance of the courts ensuring through inquiry that a plea of guilty is sufficient in law.

[9]  Carthy J.A. went on to indicate that,

Statements made in the course of the inquiry following a guilty plea may, although not admitted by the Crown, justify the Court in rejecting the guilty plea and proceeding to trial.

And further,

The Court should not be in the position of convicting and sentencing individuals, who fall short of admitting the facts to support the conviction unless that guilt is proved beyond a reasonable doubt.  Nor should sentencing proceed on the false assumption of contrition.  That did not happen here, but worse, the sentence became impossible to perform.  Plea bargaining is an accepted and integral part of our criminal justice system but must be conducted with sensitivity to its vulnerabilities.

Accordingly, where a court is aware that a person denies guilt, the court should be unwilling to accept a plea of guilty and instead, in the public interest of seeing that justice is properly done, set the matter for Trial.


Furthermore, in addition to the common law case decisions such as those provided above, both the Criminal Code of Canada, R.S.C. 1985, c. C-46 at section 606(1.1) as well as the Provincial Offences Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. P.33 at section 45(3) prescribe conditions required before the court may accept a guilty plea.  Specifically, the statutes state:

606 (1.1) A court may accept a plea of guilty only if it is satisfied that

(a) the accused is making the plea voluntarily;

(b) the accused understands

(i) that the plea is an admission of the essential elements of the offence,

(ii) the nature and consequences of the plea, and

(iii) that the court is not bound by any agreement made between the accused and the prosecutor; and

(c) the facts support the charge.

45 (3) A court may accept a plea of guilty only if it is satisfied that the defendant,

(a)  is making the plea voluntarily;

(b)  understands that the plea is an admission of the essential elements of the offence;

(c)  understands the nature and consequences of the plea; and

(d)  understands that the court is not bound by any agreement made between the defendant and the prosecutor.

Summary Comment

Although a guilty plea may encourage expediency, public respect for the justice system requires that only persons who genuinely perceive guilt should plead guilty.  Where a court perceives that a person is pleading guilty despite a belief of innocence, the court should refuse to accept the guilty plea.

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