The new sentencing guidelines for health and safety offences, corporate manslaughter and food safety and hygiene offences came into force on 1 February 2016. The general expectation is that fines and custodial sentences will increase and that reflects our experience over the past month. We have produced a sentencing tracker, you can view the updated tracker here, which provides some more information about the sentences imposed. The highest fine in February was for £3million in relation to an uncontrolled release of gas from an offshore platform. Although there were no injuries, about 66 people were put at risk. At the end of January 2016 in the week before the guidelines were introduced, four companies were each fined over £1million.
In addition to fines, a care home director has been convicted of gross negligence manslaughter and sentenced to three years and two months imprisonment. The care home manager in that case received a suspended sentence. Another director from the waste management sector also received a suspended prison sentence following a severe injury to one of his employees.
Our experience in court is that prosecutors are pushing hard to push cases into higher harm and culpability categories which has a significant impact on the starting point for the fine. For a large organisation with a turnover of over £50 million, very high culpability and the highest category of harm attracts a starting point fine of £4 million with a range of between £2.6 and £10 million. Low culpability and the lowest harm category however puts the starting point at £10,000 with a range of between £3,000 and £60,000. Cogent evidence on culpability and seriousness of harm risked is going to be important in helping to determine the right category.
Magistrates now generally have the power to impose unlimited fines in health and safety cases. A practice direction issued by the the Lord Chief Justice encourages District Judges authorised to deal with these cases to first consider whether they should be allocated to the Crown Court. If a District Judge declines to commit such a case he or she must give written reasons. Our experience and that of barristers we have spoken to suggests that many authroised District Judges are treading carefully with these cases and often appear reluctant to keep them. This of course is at odds with their power to impose unlimited fines but it is of course early days…..