The long awaited Section 85 of The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (the “Act”), which removes the fine limits that Magistrates’ Courts can impose for serious offences, came into force on 12 March 2015, meaning that for certain serious offences committed on or after 12 March 2015, the Magistrates Court can now impose unlimited fines.
Under section 85(1) of the Act, for any offence previously punishable in the Magistrates’ Court with a fine of £5,000 or above, the limits will now be removed.
The reference to “or above” is key as this means that companies that commit, amongst other things, food, health and safety, licensing and environmental offences, will now face unlimited fines, despite some of these fines previously being limited to £20,000 or £50,000 in the Magistrates’ Court.
There are of course now sentencing guidelines for environmental offences to assist the Magistrates’ Court when sentencing environmental offences. In relation to health and safety, corporate manslaughter and food safety and hygiene offences, we reported previously that new sentencing guidelines have been produced and have been the subject of consultation. The sentencing guidelines will apply to cases sentenced after the date of implementation, irrespective of when the offence was committed. Although these are not due to come into force until late 2015, it is likely to be at least this time before offences committed after 12 March 2015 will reach the Courts and therefore sentencing under the unlimited regime will be by reference to the proposed sentencing guidelines.
One of the objectives of the sentencing guidelines was to anticipate the removal of upper limits of fine and equip the Magistrates’ with a framework to ensure that levels of fine are commensurate with the defendant’s culpability and to try and achieve consistency of approach and level of fine. Will the fines imposed by the Magistrates’ Court meet these aims? – We will see.