On the 12th of March this year the limit of £20,000 for health and safety offences tried through the Magistrates’ Court was removed and fines of unlimited amounts can now be imposed. The change, brought about through Section 85 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, removes the cap on magistrates’ sentencing powers in respect of health and safety and other offences.
With Magistrates’ Courts now having the same sentencing powers as the Crown Court for health and safety offences, it is envisaged that they will dispose of more cases thereby freeing up the Crown Court to focus on the most serious cases and those that are triable on indictment only, such as corporate manslaughter or gross negligence manslaughter.
However, there is some nervousness over the perceived inexperience that many magistrates have in dealing with and sentencing corporate defendants. Such cases can often be very complex and technical and although sentencing guidelines should become available next year, lay magistrates do not have the training and legal expertise that a District Judge is equipped with.
It remains to be seen whether more cases will be disposed of through the Magistrates’ Court although the message ultimately remains the same – ensure you are properly managing all occupational risks and you will not fall foul of the law.