Businesses need to be aware that they could now face higher fines for environmental, health and safety and similar regulatory offences. New legislation has removed a long standing tradition regarding the trial and sentencing of such offences and increases the likelihood of much larger fines in such cases.
Regulatory offences are ‘triable either way’. This means that, if they are less serious, they will be tried in the magistrates’ court, while more serious offences will be tried in the Crown Court. This two tier system affects the sentence that might be awarded. Magistrates' courts can impose fines of up to £20,000 or six months' imprisonment while a judge can award unlimited fines or terms of imprisonment in the Crown Court where trial is by jury.
For obvious reasons, defendants and their legal teams have therefore put much effort into keeping cases in the magistrates' courts. But section 85 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 has blown this distinction away by providing magistrates with the power to issue unlimited fines for cases in their courts. The intention is not to increase fines for minor offences but rather to reduce the burden on the Crown Courts and to stop court time being taken up with arguments over the location.
However, these powers are significantly greater than those available to magistrates for ‘general’ criminal offences and as they flex their new sentencing muscles, an inevitable consequence must be that fines will become both more unpredictable and almost certainly higher.