Starting today (1 July 2014), the courts in England and Wales when sentencing specified environmental offences must consider the “Environmental Offences Definitive Guideline” (the “Guideline”) published by the Sentencing Council (click here to view the Guideline in full). The Guideline shall apply regardless of when the offence was committed.

The Guideline obliges the Magistrates’ Court and the Crown Court to follow a 12 step decision-making process when determining which level of fine to impose. Only in very limited circumstances may the Guideline not be followed.

Introducing a tariff based system of sentencing, the overarching impact of the Guideline is that fines are to be linked directly to the Defendant organisation’s level of turnover which, in many cases, shall significantly increase the level of fine. The highest penalty available under the tariff for one offence is £3,000,000 but the Guideline states that in the event of very large organisations a higher fine may be appropriate. The Guideline also applies to the sentencing of individuals.

All organisations with environmental permits or which produce or handle waste should consider the Guideline with care and assess its implications for business. Whilst previous sentencing cases have expressed a similar philosophy to that set out within the Guideline i.e. that the aim for any fine is “to have a real economic impact which will bring home to both management and shareholders the need to improve regulatory compliance”, the tariff gives the courts for the first time express tools to achieve the aim.