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Courts must prepare for 'barrage' of guilty pleas

Courts must prepare for 'barrage' of guilty pleas

New sentencing guidelines could see businesses entering early pleas to avoid £20m fines, says health and safety expert

The courts have been warned to expect a 'barrage' of guilty pleas in health and safety cases following the publication of new guidelines from the Sentencing Council, a specialist has advised.

The new guidelines come into effect on 1 February 2016. They introduce a wider range of fines for offences and an increase in the maximum amounts that can be imposed on organisations.

Current guidance indicates the starting point for a corporate manslaughter offence should be £500,000. However, the new guidelines increase the maximum fine to £20m.

Individual company directors found guilty of consent, connivance, or neglect could receive potentially unlimited fines and prison sentences of up to two years.

Corporate priority

Laura Cameron, a partner and head of regulatory law at Pinsent Masons, believes directors will now be encouraged to prioritise health and safety cases.

'UK PLC has been sent a clear message today that the regulatory authorities expect health and safety to remain a key corporate priority,' she said. 'Boardrooms across the country will be taking note, and if they are not already doing so, directors should be pushing health and safety issues to the top of their agenda.'

Cameron added: '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.'

While the new regime prescribes the procedure involved in the calculation of fines, calculating larger fines remains unclear, according to Cameron.

'Organisations will be required to submit detailed financial information including turnover, pre-tax profit, director remuneration, pension provision, assets, and debt exposure for the past three years.

'Further, the judiciary will be able to take into account the broader context of the business, for instance it may be that a parent company's turnover is taken into account when calculating the fine for a subsidiary,' she said.

Greater consistency

The Sentencing Council acknowledged that higher fines are possible in cases involving large organisations found to have committed serious offences.

'The increase in penalties for serious offending has been introduced because in the past, some offenders did not receive fines that properly reflected the crimes they committed.

'The council wants fines for these offences to be fair and proportionate to the seriousness of the offence and the means of offenders.'

Michael Caplan QC, a member of the Sentencing Council, believes the new guidelines will provide greater consistency for offences.

'These guidelines will introduce a consistent approach to sentencing, ensuring fair and proportionate sentences for those who cause death or injury to their employees and the public or put them at risk.

'These offences can have very serious consequences and it is important that sentences reflect these.'

However, Jonathan Grimes, a partner specialising in corporate manslaughter at Kingsley Napley, said: 'The amounts we are talking about represent a massive hike in the fine levels we have seen to date. Of course, the Sentencing Council wants the new regime to act as a further deterrent  to companies in the habit of cutting corners or operating lax procedures. I hope this is the case. 

'My fear is that in practice such harsh penalties may well encourage corporate defendants to contest allegations where previously they would have pleaded guilty. This would be an unfortunate and doubtless unintended consequence.'

Matthew Rogers is an editorial assistant at Solicitors Journal matthew.rogers@solicitorsjournal.co.uk

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