Changes to magistrates’ courts fines

Changes to the legal system can have a dramatic impact on the way you do business. Whether it’s to do with the overall compliance of your organisation, the impact on staff or customers, or the cost and impact any changes may have, it’s vital you stay up to date with what’s happening.

One recent change has been the removal by the government of the £50,000 upper limit on fines that can be imposed by magistrates’ courts. We asked top legal firm, Nabarro LLP, who supply HABC Approved Centres with a regular health and safety law update, to explain more.

‘The Government has recently announced that it will remove the £5,000 upper limit on fines imposed in the magistrates’ courts. It is the government’s view that financial penalties, set at a level without the current maximums, are an effective way of deterring and punishing crime. One of the aims of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (the Act) is to remove elements of the law that fetter the courts’ ability to make a decision over sentencing. This increase is the first made since 1991 and is provided for in the Act.

When the changes come into play, they will apply across all business sectors and will affect a very wide range of legislation, including commercial, company, financial services, competition, property, health and safety, and environmental laws. Companies and their directors may have to reconsider their approach to any offences which up until now may have been treated as relatively minor because of the low fines involved.

Recent developments
Gavel by Salvatore VuonoThe Act received Royal Assent on 1 May 2012 and was primarily introduced to deal with the reform of civil litigation costs and funding. It allows for a certain degree of adjustment in relation to existing legislation. Under the sections pending commencement, the Secretary of State will also be granted various powers to:

  • Disapply the new provisions;
  • Create new caps;
  • Increase fixed fines; and
  • Increase fines currently defined with reference to the standard scale.

In accordance with these powers, two statutory instruments were published in draft form on 10 June 2014. These draft pieces of subordinate legislation and the relevant provisions of the Act are intended to come into force at the same time.

The draft Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (Disapplication of Section 85(1), Fines Expressed as Proportions and Consequential Amendments) Regulations 2014 disapplies the Act’s provision permitting an unlimited level of fine and provides alternative provisions for a specified list of legislation. The Regulation also states how penalties that are expressed as proportions of amounts of £5,000 or more will be treated under the new regime.

The Health and Safety (Offences) Act 2008 and Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 are not excluded under this Regulation, so, as it stands currently, magistrates will have the power to impose unlimited fines once the Act comes into force.

The draft Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (Amendment of Standard Scale of Fines for Summary Offences) Order 2014 will amend section 37(2) of the Criminal Justice Act 1982 to increase the maximum fines on levels 1 to 4 on the standard scale by 400 per cent.

Aims and impact
The maximum fines currently available to magistrates depend on the seriousness of the offence committed. In general, the penalty for offences committed under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 or the Health and Safety (Offences) Act 2008 are currently up to £50,000, £20,000 or £5,000 in the magistrates’ court. In the Crown Court, fines can be unlimited. In relation to some of these offences, the magistrates’ court also has the power to impose a prison sentence of a maximum term of six months, or longer in the Crown Court.

In the paper released by the Ministry of Justice, Increasing the Magistrates’ Court fine limit – Equality Impact Assessment, it is noted that one per cent of all fines in the magistrates’ court, and around 60 per cent of all fines of £5,000 or over, are issued to organisations. It is suggested that the rule changes mean that organisations will be differentially affected relative to individuals. The new Act will permit magistrates to impose larger fines and to deal with more cases themselves, without incurring the time and monetary costs of committal to the Crown Court’.

Nabbaro will be contributing a speaker to the HABC National Conference at Old Trafford, Manchester in November on the subject of health and safety. For more information, click here.

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