The recent press coverage of the proposed increases in magistrates' courts fine levels has tended to focus on the higher maximums for motoring offences, in particular maximum fine for speeding on a motorway being increased to £10,000 from £2,500. However, an increase in sentencing powers could have some benefits for defendants charged with health and safety or environmental offences.

The reasoning behind the changes introduced by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) was not simply to allow magistrates to impose higher fines; it was to encourage those courts to deal with more offences rather than send them to the Crown Court.  This will save the additional costs, delay and inconvenience associated with the Crown Court.

The changes

By virtue of LASPO, for any offence sentenced in the Magistrates' Court, a fine currently capped at £5,000 or a higher amount (for example, breaches of health and safety legislation which are currently limited to a maximum fine of £20,000) will be a fine of an unlimited amount (section 85(1), LASPO).

This will:

  • Apply to both summary offences and either way offences that are tried summarily
  • Not have retrospective effect
  • Apply to England and Wales, but not Northern Ireland or Scotland.

As was made clear in the Equality Impact Assessment associated with LASPO, the Government stated that:

  • It wished to encourage greater use of fines in the magistrates' courts.
  • The removal of the cap on fines would enable the magistrates' courts to impose more proportionate fines on "wealthy or corporate offenders and organisations".
  • By allowing the magistrates' courts to impose higher fines, they will be less likely to refer the offender to the Crown Court for sentencing in either way offences.

What will the changes mean in practice?

We have over the last few years seen fines for health and safety and environmental offences increase quite dramatically. Following the recent judgment in R. v Sellafield Ltd [2014] EWCA Crim 49 and the sentencing Council's "Environmental Offences - Definitive Guideline", this progression is unlikely to slow. Therefore, with the changes to be brought in by LASPO, 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 and also where the case is to be heard.

Currently, if a defendant (including a corporate body) pleads "not guilty" to an either way offence, a choice has to be made as to whether the case should be heard in the magistrates' court or the Crown Court. One of the key factors to be considered by the magistrates' court is whether it has sufficient sentencing powers.

One of the effects of the changes is that magistrates' courts will no longer have to commit a case to the Crown Court for sentencing just because they have insufficient sentencing powers.  Where their previous maximum was £5000 or £20,000, they will be able to proceed with sentencing knowing they have the ability to impose, within reason, any level of fine.

It remains to be seen if the Sentencing Council will amend the existing sentencing guidelines to provide the magistrates' courts with guidance on what fines would be appropriate where there is no cap, to ensure that disproportionate fines are not imposed on corporate bodies simply because "they can afford it".