Average fines for health and safety offences have more than quadrupled since the Sentencing Council imposed its guidelines on courts three years ago, the first official report into their impact has found.
The Sentencing Council said it was 'confident' that sentences now reflect the seriousness of offences, as well as being proportionate to offenders’ means, its twin aims when it first introduced the framework in February 2016.
In headline findings, the average fine for all organisations was £40,500 before the sentencing guideline came into force. This increased to £221,700 in the period after.
For 'large or very large’ (£50 million plus turnover) organisations, the upwards trend was clearest. Pre-2016, the average fine for a large or very large firm was £25,000 and this increased to over £350,000 after.
However, there was also a big impact on small or micro organisations, which saw median fines more than double from £20,100 to £45,200.
"For health and safety offences, the findings suggest that the guideline has caused a substantial increase in fine amounts for larger organisations, which was anticipated by the Council. Fines also appear to have increased (to a lesser degree) for smaller organisations, which was not anticipated,” said the report.
The Council said it would be considering whether to revise the guidelines in light of the findings for small firms. A spokesperson said: “The Council has considered this analysis, particularly the findings in relation to the fines imposed on smaller organisations and individuals. The Council intends to investigate further the operation of the guideline in due course, and will consider at that stage whether any revision of the guideline is necessary.”
Helen Devery, partner at BLM law firm, said that courts were not being ruthless on small companies, and that fines have been proportionate to the offence across the board. “Fines are commensurate with turnover and whilst smaller businesses rarely face million pound fines, they can be subject to fines running into the hundreds of thousands.
“No court sets out to destroy a business, its ability to remain viable following a fine is taken into consideration; however, this does not mean the fine will not be punitive and the impact must be felt across the business.”
Findings are based on HSE prosecutions data from the 10 months from July 2014 to October 2015 (pre-guideline) and February 2016 to May 2017 (post-guideline). A total of 161 pre, and 129 post guideline cases were covered.
A sample of 53 cases was also used to see whether sentencers had encountered any problems in following the steps, including some of the more ‘complex’ processes such as assessing harm. The report found no issues here ‘indicating the guideline is being followed as intended.’
Sentencing Council Chairman Lord Justice Holroyde commented: “The Council is confident the guideline is achieving [its] objective and ensuring that where an offence results in the loss of life or very serious injury, fines are sufficiently punitive.”
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