Carter Jonas
Carter Jonas

Tougher sentences for those who breach Health and Safety laws

During the last five years, there have been 160 fatalities among agricultural workers in the UK with 33 in the period 2014/15 according to the Health and Safety Executive.

Being struck by a moving vehicle accounted for almost a fifth of the 160 deaths with falls from height and being injured by animals each accounting for more than 14 per cent. Another 10 per cent were caused by contacts with machinery and more than 16 per cent when people were struck by objects.

Each year in agriculture, four per cent of staff suffer a work-related injury, with the same number for forestry. So it’s hardly surprising that the Sentencing Council has published new definitive guidelines for penalties in response to a consultation at this time last year.

The new guidelines will apply to organisations in England and Wales sentenced on or after 1 February 2016 (regardless of the date of the offence) and to all individual offenders aged 18 and over. The guidelines do not apply to Scotland, where a new Sentencing Council for Scotland came into existence on 19 October 2015 .

The intention is that the new guidelines will replace the previous guidelines which provided that fines should seldom be less than £500,000 for corporate manslaughter and £100,000 for health and safety offences causing death. There were concerns that the sentences being imposed were too low and failing to have any significant economic impact on the organisations on which they were imposed.

Large organisations (those with a turnover of £50 million or more) could face fines of up to £10 million for health and safety offences and £20 million for corporate manslaughter. It will be at the Court’s discretion to go above these figures if they consider a case to be exceptional. This is significantly more than the £100,000 / £500,000 figures provided in the previous guidance.

For the smallest, “micro”, organisations (turnover of up to £2 million) convicted of an offence of lower culpability the usual starting point is £300,000 – in limited circumstances the range has a base level at £180,000.

The Sentencing Council considered the dataset for corporate manslaughter too small to be of practical use, but the equivalent material for health and safety prosecutions shows that the average (mean) fine imposed has increased from £41,400 in 2011 to £46,000 in 2013. A quarter of fines in 2013 were larger than £60,000, and a quarter under £5,000. Only 5 per cent of convicted defendants received fines of over £225,000. It is clear that the new guideline seeks to fundamentally shift the size and range of fines upwards, particularly towards the upper end.

The new guideline sets out in detail the proper procedure for the calculation of fines. A convicted defendant organisation must provide to the court comprehensive accounts for the last three years, in order that its financial status can be accurately assessed. Companies and partnerships must provide annual accounts (preferably audited), and courts will pay particular attention to turnover, pre-tax profits, assets and directors’ remuneration, loan accounts and pension provision. Should a court not be satisfied that sufficient reliable information has been provided it may infer that the offender can pay any fine.

Fines are expected to meet the objectives of punishment, the reduction of offending through deterrence and removal of gain derived through the commission of the offence. Significantly, the guideline requires fines to be “sufficiently substantial to have a real economic impact”, in order to “bring home to management and shareholders the need to achieve a safe environment for workers and members of the public affected by their activities.” In some circumstances putting a convicted organisation out of business may be an acceptable consequence.

Tim Jones

Tim JonesFRICS

Partner - Head of Rural Division

Tim is head of the firm's Rural Division and of the Cambridge office, although he spends a considerable amount of time in London.  He has over 20 years experience in advising institutional and pri...

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