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One small step for Magistrates, but a giant leap for criminal fines

A relatively un-noticed, but potentially quite expensive, legislative change came into effect on 12th March 2015 seems to have slipped many an employers’ notice. It is however something businesses regardless of size need to be aware of, should they find themselves falling foul of the law after that date.

Until now, there has been a limit to the level of fines imposed upon conviction by a Magistrates’ Court following a breach of legislation. The maximum fines available were dependant on the seriousness of the offence, but in general the penalty for offences committed under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 or related regulations ranged from £5,000 for a minor offence up to a maximum of £20,000 for a more serious violation. If the Magistrate felt the punishment should be above these levels then the case would have to be referred to the Crown Court.

The legislation change, which is included within Section 85 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, has effectively removed all the limits on fines made by a Magistrate and an uncapped fine can therefore now be imposed.

The changes apply across all sectors and affect a very wide range of legislation aside from Health and Safety offences. These include financial services, competition, sale of alcohol to minors, a breach of some of the Care Quality Commission’s Fundamental Standards and environmental legislation.

It is expected that the changes will encourage greater use of fines in the Magistrates’ Courts enabling them to impose more proportionate fines on wealthy and corporate offenders. Employers that may have taken a relaxed approach towards Health and Safety or other forms of compliance due to a relatively small financial penalty, may now have to sit up and take notice.

There has been a significant increase in fines for Health and Safety breaches in recent years, and these legislation changes mean we are likely to see the trend continue. Consultation on the new sentencing guidelines for Health and Safety has been completed and, with the guidance expected later this year, the power to impose larger fines will become even more relevant.

Of course, the best way of avoiding fines is by avoiding Health and Safety breaches and complying with legislation.

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