Unlimited fines for health and safety and environmental offences in the magistrates’ court

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Legislation came into effect on 12 March 2015 providing for all maximum fines in the Magistrates’ Court of £5,000 or more to become unlimited in England and Wales. The legislation is contained in section 85 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.

Previously, fines payable on conviction in the Magistrates’ Court were capped, often at a statutory maximum of £5,000 on the Magistrates’ Court ‘standard scale’, or a higher amount, if so provided for in the applicable legislation. For example, health and safety offences under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 were capped at £20,000, while the cap for environmental offences varied between £5,000 and £50,000 depending upon the nature of the offence. Henceforth, there will be no cap on the level of fines which can be imposed by Magistrates for these offences.

The volume of legislation which contains provision for the commission by businesses of offences punishable on conviction in the Magistrates’ Court is vast and too great to set out in full here, but it includes, for instance, offences relating to consumer protection, product safety, misleading marketing, weights and measures, consumer credit, competition law, intellectual property, offences under the Companies Act 2006 and offences under planning legislation as well as the health and safety and environmental offences mentioned above.

The new legislation will apply both to summary offences (those which can only be tried in the Magistrates’ Court) and to either way offences (triable by Magistrates or in the Crown Court) that are tried summarily. It will mean that Magistrates’ Courts will no longer have to commit a case to the Crown Court for sentencing simply because they have insufficient sentencing powers. Fines of below £5,000 will continue to be capped (although the amount of the cap may increase over time).

The changes only apply to fines for criminal offences in the Magistrates’ Court. They do not apply to Crown Court fines (which will remain unlimited, unless expressly capped in the applicable legislation) or to civil fines imposed by regulators. The changes do not have retrospective effect and only apply to offences committed on or after 12 March 2015.

The rationale for the legislation is to encourage the greater use of fines in the Magistrates’ Courts and, in particular, to enable Magistrates’ Courts to impose more proportionate fines on wealthy and corporate offenders.

Fines for health and safety offences in particular have increased at a significant rate in recent years. The relaxation of the restrictions on the fining powers of Magistrates’ Courts is very likely to increase this trend still further. Corporate boards that have, until now, taken a relaxed approach towards compliance – be it with health and safety regulations, environmental legislation or even corporate compliance, such as filing returns – on the basis that a financial rap on the knuckles was worth the risk may get a rude awakening.

The power to impose larger fines in the Magistrates’ Court will become even more relevant once the new sentencing guidelines for health and safety, corporate manslaughter, food safety and hygiene offences are implemented later this year.