The £20,000 limit on fines for health and safety breaches in the lower courts could be removed.

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Businesses facing prosecution for breaches of health and safety law could face tougher fines if government proposals to give magistrates unlimited sentencing powers get the go ahead.

All offences that currently carry a fine limited to £5,000 or more, such as environmental and health and safety breaches, will have their maximum fine limits completely removed under the Ministry of Justice proposals.

The measures represent a dramatic increase in the powers the lower courts have in considering the level of fine to impose and could see more cases being heard by magistrates, rather than being referred to the crown courts. A leading health and safety lawyer has suggested this could lead to a greater degree of uncertainty for firms facing prosecution and that, as the lower courts find their feet with handling more health and safety cases, the level of fines could steadily increase for those breaches generally handled by magistrates.

Announcing the changes justice minister Jeremy Wright said:

“Financial penalties set at the right level can be an effective way of punishing criminals and deterring them from further offending. “Magistrates are the cornerstone of our justice system and these changes will provide them with greater powers to deal with the day-to-day offences that impact their local communities.” The last increase in magistrates’ sentencing powers for health and safety prosecutions came in 2009 when the Health and Safety (Offences) Act 2008 came into force. It increased the maximum fine the lower courts could impose from £5,000 to £20,000. Government research published in January found fines levied in magistrates’ courts since the 2008 act came into force had increased by around 60%.

Kevin Bridges, a lawyer from Pinsent Masons who predominantly defends companies accused of health and safety crimes, said: “The biggest reason for the magistrates sending [cases] to the crown court is they don’t have sufficient sentencing powers; that will obviously go and therefore there will be far more cases dealt with in the magistrates court. “I think from that perspective it will potentially have benefits in that it will reduce the overall length of time proceedings take to bring to a conclusion and if something takes less time inevitably it will incur less costs.” He continued: “Traditionally magistrates have fined less; they impose lower fines than the crown court largely to down to the fact that there is a cap on those fines… over time we will see that the level of fines are no longer following that tradition.”

The powers have been on the statute books for just under two years after the provisions were introduced, but not enacted, by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. The government will bring forward legislation this parliamentary year to make the provisions take effect. Under the measures magistrates will also gain greater powers to impose bigger fines for more minor offences, such as speeding and selling alcohol to a child, up to a 400% increase.

Richard Monkhouse, the chair of the Magistrates’ Association, said: “The Ministry of Justice announcement is welcome recognition of the role magistrates play in our justice system. It’s important that magistrates are trusted to do the job of administering appropriate sentences for offences before them in court. These changes, which were enacted two years ago but which are only now being implemented, can help to do that. “We hope that this signals a growing trend of trusting magistrates by allowing them the appropriate discretion to deliver local justice, and that other areas for sentencing powers will be examined too.”

See more at: https://sm.britsafe.org/magistrates-have-unlimited-sentencing-powers-safety-cases-under-government-proposals?utm_campaign=BSC170+-+SM+July+e-Newsletter&utm_source=emailCampaign&utm_medium=email&utm_content=#sthash.88ZGfF1i.dpuf

Photograph: Matt Watson-Power