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Explainer: What does it mean to plead guilty to a criminal charge?

Sun Sicong, a polytechnic student, was recently charged with three offences, including wounding religious feelings, making an insulting communication and possession of obscene films.

By pleading guilty to an offence, an accused person is admitting to having committed the offence alleged.

By pleading guilty to an offence, an accused person is admitting to having committed the offence alleged.

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Sun Sicong, a polytechnic student, was recently charged with three offences, including wounding religious feelings, making an insulting communication and possession of obscene films.

Even though Sun was willing to plead guilty to two of the three charges, his case was instead adjourned to a later date.

Some may wonder what this means and how the criminal justice process works.


A charge is a formal accusation that someone has committed a crime. In legal terms, a crime is known as an offence.

Offences are created by Parliament. Parliament decides what conduct is criminal and then defines the scope of the offence and the punishment for the offence by passing an Act of Parliament, which is also known as a statute.

The main source of criminal law in Singapore is the Penal Code. This is an Act of Parliament that defines many common offences such as murder, rape, theft and cheating. There are also other statutes dealing with more specialised offences such as the Misuse of Drugs Act, the Prevention of Corruption Act, or the Computer Misuse Act, to name a few.

A charge therefore is a document that tells the person being charged, called the accused, what offence he is accused of, according to which statute, and the details of the time, place and manner of offending. That is, how and when the crime is alleged to have been carried out. Generally, there should be one charge per offence, though there are some exceptions.


Being charged does not necessarily mean that the accused committed the offence.

The presumption of innocence is fundamental to our justice system. This means that an accused person is assumed to be innocent unless and until he is proven guilty before a court of law.

Someone must take the accused to court and prove that he committed the offence by showing evidence to a judge. The person or organisation charging the accused is known as the prosecution. Usually, this is a public agency such as the Attorney-General’s Chambers, but in some cases there can be prosecutions by private individuals.

If the prosecution is unable to prove beyond reasonable doubt in a trial that the accused actually committed the offence, and if the accused does not admit to the crime, then the prosecution will fail and the accused will be acquitted.

This means that he is let go without any further consequences.


Being charged is the start of court proceedings. At this stage, the accused is brought before a judge and the charge is read out to him.

The accused can then decide whether he wants to contest the charge or to plead guilty. The court at this stage is just getting an indication of what he intends to do and there will likely be a further hearing to actually deal with either a trial or plea of guilt.

Generally, the guilt of the accused needs to be proved. If the accused does not admit to the charge, then there will be a trial. This is a formal court hearing in which evidence must be produced to show, beyond reasonable doubt, that the accused committed the offence.

Pleading guilty means that the accused admits to the offence without contest.

He will then be convicted and sentenced to a punishment. The applicable range of punishment is defined by Parliament, usually in the same statute that defines the offence. This is usually a quicker route to resolution of a case.

This is the option that Sun has chosen, for at least two out of three of his charges. Since he has not actually pleaded guilty yet, only stated his intention to do so, he can change his mind and claim trial at any time.

However, once a plea of guilt hearing date is fixed and he actually pleads guilty to a judge, he cannot change his mind and retract his plea.

Only in exceptional cases, where the accused, for example, did not understand what he was doing, can the plea be retracted. This would however require a separate application to the High Court, called a Criminal Revision, for the High Court to decide whether to allow the plea to be retracted.

For the remaining charge, Sun can likewise decide whether to claim trial or plead guilty. However, if it is unrelated to the other charges, it may be dealt with at a separate court proceeding.


Generally, pleading guilty is taken as a sign of genuine remorse, so the prosecution is likely to exercise some leniency in the sentence that it asks the court to impose.

The prosecution may decide to change the charges to less serious versions of the offence, which attract less punishment, or it may decide simply to ask for a less severe sentence within the range of punishment defined by the offence.

This is sometimes known as a “plea offer” – it is the position that the prosecution is willing to take on condition that the accused pleads guilty.

However, it should not be confused with “plea bargaining”. The Public Prosecutor has absolute discretion and the offer is unilateral. The offer may change if relevant legal considerations are brought up for the prosecution to consider, but it is not a matter of negotiation – the prosecution’s offer is based on its own assessment of what a fair legal position is.

In this case, it appears that the prosecution has not yet decided what its sentencing position will be. This is why Sun’s case was adjourned to a later date.

It is important to note that the judge is not bound by the prosecution’s sentencing position. The judge is obliged to sentence the accused according to law, and the judge’s interpretation of what an appropriate sentence is may differ from the prosecution. In coming to a decision, the judge will also listen to what the accused has to say, which is known as mitigation.

It is nonetheless usually useful for the accused to know what the prosecution’s sentencing position is. Judges usually will not exceed the sentence asked for by the prosecution since it is the prosecution’s role to assist the judge in coming to a fair sentence.

Sun will therefore have to wait for the prosecution to firm up its sentencing position before his case proceeds to a plea of guilt court hearing.


Alexander Woon is a lecturer at Singapore University of Social Sciences’ School of Law and practises law as Of Counsel at RHTLaw Asia. He was formerly a deputy public prosecutor at the Attorney-General’s Chambers.

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court crime justice judicial

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