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Magistrates given power to impose unlimited fines for regulatory breaches

The removal of the upper limits on most fines will affect the majority of cases heard in the Magistrates' Court. It will especially impact most summary prosecutions brought against companies and individuals by regulators such as the Health and Safety Executive, Environment Agency or Local Authorities.  

What's changing?

Until now there were set fine levels. These were tightly controlled by five different statutory levels (£200, £500, £1,000, £2,500 and £5,000), which corresponded to the seriousness of the offence. In some cases legislation provided for higher fines beyond this scale, for example £20,000 for some health and safety offences and £50,000 for certain environmental offences.

This has now changed. For all offences committed after 12 March 2015, the limits on all fines of £5,000 and above have been scrapped. This will open the door for Magistrates to impose higher fines where they see fit.

Any statutory limits on fines of below £5,000 for less serious offences, ie levels 1-4 offences, will remain in force.

What does this mean for businesses?

The changes will affect the sentencing of all businesses and its directors or senior managers who are found guilty of regulatory offences, especially Health and Safety and Environmental offences that have typically always attracted the highest level of fines.

The changes mean that Magistrates now have the power to move outside of recognised boundaries and impose unlimited fines for breaches of the following regulatory offences:

  • health and safety law where employees or members of the public are injured, including construction offences under the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015;
  • environmental law, including noise and waste management offences;
  • food safety law, including food hygiene and labeling offences;
  • trading law, including liability for defective products and breaches of consumer protection legislation; 
  • licensing and planning law; and
  • data protection and privacy offences, including nuisance calls and failure to protect customers' personal data.

One of the major concerns for companies facing prosecution by a regulator or local authority will be the uncertainty created by the new rules. Until now, organisations have known what the 'worst case scenario' would be in terms of fines in the Magistrates' Court because of the statutory cap on fines. That element of certainty has now gone for the higher level offences, which could make for more hotly contested trials in the Magistrates' Court. 

While it may be premature to say that the changes will result in higher fines, the reforms should be understood in the context of recent changes to sentencing guidelines for regulatory offences. These changes provide higher fines for companies with high annual turnovers.

The lifting of the upper statutory limits on fines will open the door for the application of these guidelines in the Magistrates' Court that could result in higher fines for larger organisations. In light of this, those who are prosecuted for 'either way' offences committed after 12 March 2015 will have to give careful consideration if it would be better for them to elect for trial in the Crown Court.

This publication is intended for general guidance and represents our understanding of the relevant law and practice as at April 2015. Specific advice should be sought for specific cases; we cannot be held responsible for any action (or decision not to take action) made in reliance upon the content of this publication.

TLT LLP is a limited liability partnership registered in England & Wales number OC 308658 whose registered office is at One Redcliff Street, Bristol BS1 6TP England. A list of members (all of whom are solicitors or lawyers) can be inspected by visiting the People section of this website. TLT LLP is authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority under number 406297.

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