In these cases, breaches of health and safety and environmental protection legislation led to high fines being imposed in the Crown Court despite no deaths being caused in either incident. Two  appeals against sentence were heard together, as both concerned the appropriate level of fine for  large companies.

In the case involving Sellafield, a failure in the segregation system led to radioactive waste  being incorrectly classified as exempt resulting in it being sent to landfill for four months,  before the failure was identified. Whilst it was accepted that there was no deliberate intent and  no harm had been caused, the company was fined £700,000 notwithstanding full cooperation and an  early guilty plea. This was said to be equivalent to just over one week’s profit for the company.

The second appeal was by Network Rail in respect of a fine of £500,000 imposed after an incident  involving a car struck by a train at an unmanned railway crossing. A 10 year old boy was thrown  from the vehicle and sustained severe injuries. Whilst earlier inspections had identified a  potential risk at the crossing, no steps had been taken to minimise the risk in the six years prior  to the incident. The substantial fine was imposed notwithstanding an early guilty plea and the  absence of any suggestion that the company was putting profit before safety.

In both cases, it was argued that the level of the fine was manifestly excessive bearing in mind  the absence of a fatality. The Court of Appeal dismissed both appeals. Sentencing guidance  highlighted the criteria set out in R v F Howe (Engineers) Limited whereby the level of fine should  bring home the message that health and safety must be taken seriously not just by the managers of  the company, but also by its shareholders. The Court of Appeal also highlighted the importance of  examining a company’s corporate structure and its finances in delivering that message.

In relation to Sellafield, Mrs Justice Thirlwall stated: “A fine of £700,000 after a guilty plea is  a fine which reflects a case where the culpability was moderate, the actual harm was in effect nil  and the risk of harm very low.” In relation to Network Rail, the judges considered the fine to be  appropriate to ensure that the directors of Network Rail paid greater attention to their duties in  the safeguarding of level crossings. Pertinently, the Appeal Court judges also concluded that had  the sentencing judges imposed bigger fines in each case, they would have been free to do so “with  no basis for criticism.”

Against this background it appears inevitable that future prosecutions of large companies may lead to significant fines even where no harm or injury has resulted from the breach.