Movement of cases to lower courts triggers rise in average fines
The Government has published a report Health and Safety Act 2008: Post-legislative scrutiny memorandum 16 January 2014. The report has found that “tougher penalties” are being handed out to employers for breaches of health and safety legislation following a “change in approach to prosecutions”.
The changes introduced under the Health and Safety Offences Act are said to have led to more cases being tried in the lower courts, higher fines handed out to convicted offenders and more prison terms imposed for “unscrupulous employers” who pay scant regard to the welfare of their staff or the public.
Penalties for breach of regulations rise by 60%
The review was conducted by the HSE on behalf of the DWP and the report reviews the first 5 years of the Act. The purpose of the Act was to raise the maximum penalties available to the courts for certain health and safety offences by altering the penalty framework set out in the Health and Safety at Work Act.
Key findings of the report include:
- 86% of cases heard in the lower courts cf 70% in the period leading up to introduction of the Act;
- average fine imposed for breaches of regulations alone increased by 60%, from £4,577 to £7,310;
- cases involving breaches of regulations and HSW Act average increase by 25% £13,334 to £16,730); and
- 346 cases attracted fines of more than £5,000 (prior to the Act max capped at £5,000);
The purpose of the Act was to increase the maximum penalties for workplace health and safety offences that could be heard in both the lower and higher courts. It was believed that if the penalties were increased it would provide a greater deterrent to would-be offenders.
The maximum fine that could be imposed by the lower courts increased four-fold from £5,000 to £20,000.
Clear message to unscrupulous employers
Magistrates and Sheriffs were also given greater powers to send an offender to prison. In the past custodial sentences were reserved for specific cases, but now someone can be sent to prison for the majority of offences.
And certain offences that in the past could only be tried in the lower courts, such as the failure to comply with an improvement order, were made triable in either court, meaning the offender could face a much tougher sentence if their case was referred to the Crown Court.
Minister of State for Health and Safety Mike Penning said:
“By handing greater sentencing powers to Magistrates and Sheriffs it has sent a clear message to unscrupulous employers that if they do not take their responsibilities seriously they will face stiff penalties, which include heavy fines and – in the very worst cases – prison.
At the same time it has removed the burden of prosecuting all but the most serious of cases through the Crown Courts, which is generally less efficient, more time-consuming and more expensive than hearings held at the lower courts.”