Courts prepare for guilty pleas ahead of £20m penalties

Courts in England & Wales are being warned to prepare for a barrage of ‘guilty’ pleas in health and safety cases after new sentencing guidelines were published today.

The Sentencing Council has released what is describes a ‘definitive guidelines for health and safety offences’, with eye-catching developments including directions to increase the maximum fine for Corporate Manslaughter to around £20m from February. Current guidance indicates that the starting point for a corporate manslaughter offence should be £500k.

In addition, fines of around £10m for Health and Safety offences are to be expected in the most serious cases.

Legal experts say that even larger fines may be possible depending on the size of the organisation subject to proceedings.

Individual company Directors found guilty of consent, connivance or neglect will remain exposed to potentially unlimited fines and prison sentences of up to two years.

The new guidelines, which have been issued following a public consultation, will come into effect on 1 February 2016. However Health and Safety specialists at international law firm Pinsent Masons say the impact will be immediate.

Laura Cameron, Partner and Head of Regulatory at Pinsent Masons, says:

“UKPlc has been sent a clear message today that the regulatory authorities expect Health and safety to remain a key corporate priority. Given the stark difference between the current and future regimes, many of those currently subject to proceedings may be well advised to enter early guilty pleas in appropriate cases in order to expedite their cases. Sentencing under the current regime may be preferable.”

James Armstrong, Chief Executive of Cerico, says:

“Today’s developments are a timely reminder to directors at all levels that they should take an active interest in their organisation’s approach to compliance. Many organisations have very sophisticated compliance policies but the challenge lies in embedding those. Technology has a significant part to play in that, by simply making it easier for people to comply, and giving greater visibility of the compliance picture to general counsel.”

The new sentencing guidelines come after research conducted by online compliance business Cerico found that the number of criminal prosecutions brought by the unit within the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) responsible for bringing the most complex cases more-than doubled between FY12/13 (when 24 cases were brought) and FY14/15 (when 52 cases were brought).

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Published: Nov 3, 2015