Tougher Health and Safety Fines Are to Stay

Tougher Health and Safety Fines Are to Stay

10th February 2016

Last week we saw the new sentencing guidelines for health and safety offences come into force following the publication of the Sentencing Council’s definitive guidelines.  This has been described as the “most dramatic change to health and safety legislation since the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act in 1974.  We warned our readers of the impending changes last year and published some tips on how you can make sure that you and your company can avoid the tough new fines that are in place.  The new guidelines apply to any case sentenced in the courts of England and Wales after 1st February, 2016.

The new guidelines introduce a structured, nine step approach that the Court should follow when calculating sentences and courts across the UK have been preparing for their introduction with the help of a training pack produced by the Judicial College for magistrates and legal advisers which has been designed to ensure that they are familiar with the new approach to sentencing.

While the Sentencing Council does not intend that the new guidelines should increase fines across the board, they have been designed to ensure that fair and proportionate sentences are administered to offenders, especially in some of the more highly complex cases that come before the courts. 

Large organisations that have been convicted of the most serious offences and have flagrantly breached the health and safety laws, creating a high risk of serious harm (or in some cases where serious harm has actually taken place) can expect to receive a fine that’s proportionate to the seriousness of the offence and to their financial means.  In some of the most serious cases, a custodial sentence is likely to be handed out and it’s hoped that this will act as a powerful deterrent in the future.

One of the main differences in the new guidelines is that they switch from a mainly outcome based approach (how serious was the injury) to a risk based approach (how serious was the harm that was risked).  For example, in the past if an object fell from a scaffold and crushed somebody’s toes, the prosecution and sentence would have been more lenient than if the same falling object had hit somebody on the head and caused a fatality.  Under the newer, risk based approach, the toe injury is considered as having involved a high risk of death or disability.  Tougher penalties will also be used depending on the number of people put at risk.

The sentencing guidelines involve plugging “likelihood”, “culpability” and “harm” factors into a series of tables in order to see the starting point for fines and the ranges of fines above and below the starting points.  The tables were created by reviewing historic sentences and then increasing the levels of fines, particularly when dealing with larger corporations.  This was in response to the Court of Appeal’s view that health and safety fines have been too low in general and that they need to be increased to a level that will send the correct message to company directors and shareholders