The Impact of the New Sentencing Guidelines after 18 Months

The Impact of the New Sentencing Guidelines after 18 Months

27th July 2017

It’s nearly 18 months since the new sentencing guidelines came into force and at last week’s Safety and Health Expo in London, three industry experts detailed the impact these guidelines have had over the past year  with some advice on what we should expect in the future. 

Since the int4roduction of the new guidelines, the level of fines for breaches of health and safety legislation has increased by 102% (this is based on data collected until the beginning of 2017) and it’s predicted that this will increase in the future.  The largest fine handed out was £5 million (to Merlin Entertainments following the crash on the Smiler ride at Alton Towers) and 23 companies have been fined more than £1 million.  A massive 95% of cases have resulted in a conviction and cases against company directors have seen a significant increase, with custodial sentences rising.

However, it’s been discovered that although fines have been consistently higher, courts have been inconsistent and there has been a different tranche of sentences being handed out.  This seems to be because the guidelines are still subject to interpretation which leads to inconsistency.  When it comes to cases against individuals, 189 have received an immediate of suspended custodial sentence since the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 came into force, in addition to 54 for the common law offence of manslaughter.  Of the 189 individuals, only a dozen of these have been sentenced since the introduction of the new sentencing guidelines, seven of whom had the sentences imposed immediately.  The impact this is having on individuals who are charged with breaches of health and safety laws is a trend that’s likely to continue.

In recent months there has been an increase in applications for directors’ disqualifications following successful convictions for Section 37 which clearly shows that the guidelines are being used to impose harsher sentences on individuals and following up with a five year disqualification.  The guidelines have resulted in judges automatically looking at custodial sentences despite the opinion that the government doesn’t want to be sending people to prison at present.  However, the guidelines mean that there is no real alternative to this other than suspending the sentences, which has happened in several instances.  This still means that the offender has a personal criminal conviction which may have a negative effect in the future in terms of travelling abroad, getting work, etc.

From a legal point of view, the new sentencing guidelines have had an impact when it comes to an early guilty plea.  Lawyers are more inclined to advise clients to plead not guilty and fight the case.  Based on the current guidelines there is no real benefit to an early guilty plea.  It used to be the case than an early guilty plea would lead to a third off any sentence whereas this is now at the discretion of the court and the reduction is no longer more than 20%, depending on the conduct of the parties during the investigation process.  Early communication with the Health and Safety Executive is vital nowadays, especially when trying to convince the HSE not to go for a high level of culpability.