Fines in magistrates’ courts: significant increases
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (Fines on Summary Conviction) Regulations 2015, made under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, came into force on 12 March 2015. The general effect of the new regulations is to remove the cap on the amount of fines that magistrates’ courts can impose.
Magistrates can now impose higher financial penalties on offenders who have committed “level five” offences. The new regulations do not affect the powers of magistrates to impose prison sentence of up to six months and to refer more serious cases to the Crown Court for sentencing.
Unlimited fines will apply only to offences committed on or after 12 March 2015. The changes will not have retrospective effect. They will apply to a wide range of offences ranging from health and safety crimes, food and environmental laws to those relating to commercial, company, financial services, competition and property law. They will apply only to England and Wales. This means that where a law (for example, health and safety) also applies to Scotland and Northern Ireland, a fine payable for an offence under that law will be different according to where the conviction was secured: thus the changes will involve more discrepancies across the United Kingdom for laws which have UK-wide application.
These changes will also affect decisions about the choice of court for offences triable either way (that is, by summary trial in the magistrates’ court or in the Crown Court). If a company pleads not guilty to an either way offence, the magistrates have to decide whether to send the case to the Crown Court, on the basis that the sentencing powers of the magistrates are inadequate. This is now less likely to be the case.
Points from the Equality Impact Assessment
During the passage of the Act of 2012, the Ministry of Justice issued an Equality Impact Assessment in relation to the proposed increases. The Assessment included the following points.
- The maximum fines currently available to magistrates depend on the seriousness of the offences committed. For most summary offences maximum fines are set by reference to five statutory levels: £200, £500, £1000, £2500 and £5000. There are some exceptional statutory maximum fines where the financial gain realised by the offender is so large that normal fine limits are inadequate. Such offences tend to be environmental or health and safety offences committed by companies, with maximum fines such as £50,000 or £20,000.
- Financial penalties, set at the right level, can be just as effective as a community sentence in relation to deterrence and punishment. There are persuasive arguments for using financial penalties for many offenders before turning to other sanctions.
- The government wants to remove elements of the law which unhelpfully fetter courts’ discretion and believes that the court which has heard all the evidence and all the facts about the offence and the offender is in the best position to make a just decision over sentencing.
- The way in which magistrates fix individual fines is governed by statute and by sentencing guidelines. Where a court decides that a fine is the right sentence, it is required to fix a sum of money which reflects the seriousness of the offence and takes into account the means of the offender.
- Most fines in the magistrates’ courts fall well below the upper limits. But there are some cases, where the offence is at the serious end of the spectrum and where the offender is relatively wealthy, possibly a corporate body, where the maximum curtails magistrates in the fines which they can impose.
- The most significant differential impact of the new provisions is likely to be on organisations when compared with individual offenders. This is justified because, in general, organisations are likely to have greater funds at their disposal than individuals and are therefore more likely to be able to pay higher fines set by reference to their financial means.
- 60% of all fines of £5000 and over, in the magistrates’ courts, are imposed on organisations. The vast majority of these fines are for indictable offences which the magistrates can refer to the Crown Court for sentencing at a higher level. It is possible that these cases are not currently sent to the Crown Court because it is time consuming and costly.
The punishment fits the crime
A government spokesman is reported to have commented that dangerous criminals would always remain in prison but it was important that magistrates, who sentence the majority of offenders who come through our courts, have the power to hand down the appropriate punishment. Criminals should be in no doubt that if they break the law they will face consequences and where a fine is the most appropriate sentence this could run into several thousands of pounds.
Solicitors practising in this field have commented as follows.
- 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. The changes are likely to considerably affect the way in which companies approach regulatory compliance.
- Fines, e.g. for health and safety offences, have increased at a significant rate in recent years. The relaxation of the restrictions on the fining powers of magistrates’ courts is very likely to increase this trend still further.
- The power to impose larger fines will become even more relevant when the new sentencing guidelines for health and safety, corporate manslaughter and food safety and hygiene offences are implemented later in 2015.
Case Study **Box Out**
A recent example of a prosecution where the new regulations might be relevant is Health and Safety Executive v Malcolm John Reeve (2014) Darlington magistrates’ court, 17 December.
Malcolm John Reeve, the co-owner of the Urra sporting and farming estate in North Yorkshire, was fined following the death of a casual worker.
In October 2013 James Gaffney was driving an all-terrain vehicle to collect dead game following a pheasant shoot on the estate. He was not wearing a seatbelt. The vehicle overturned and he suffered fatal head injuries. Reeve was responsible for managing health and safety on the estate. No-one had used the seatbelt on the vehicle because they had not been instructed to do so.
Reeve was fined £20,000 plus £1600 costs under section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 for failing to ensure the health and safety of employees. This was the maximum fine which the magistrates could impose. The new regulations have removed this upper limit. Had this case occurred on 13 March 2015, it is possible that the magistrates would significantly increase this fine. Company directors and senior managers in organisations would do well to bear this in mind.