New Magistrates’ Court Powers to Impose Larger Fines in Environmental Offences

Penny Simpson, Freeths, Nottingham

As of 12 March 2015, Magistrates’ courts have had the power to impose fines of an unlimited amount on individuals or organisations convicted in England and Wales for criminal offences which would previously have attracted a fine capped at £5,000 or more. This applies to many environmental offences.

This has come about due to provisions in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012 which came into force on 12 March 2015. This is a significant expansion of the Magistrates’ sentencing powers.

The new provisions apply to all “summary” offences (which are always heard by the Magistrates’ court) and also to “either way” offences when dealt with in the Magistrates’ (rather than the Crown) court. They apply to all offences committed after 12 March 2015 where they would previously have attracted a fine capped at £5,000 or more.

Examples of offences affected are:

 

  • Wildlife offences contained in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010 and the Protection of Badgers Act 1992. These summary offences, until 12 March 2015, attracted a fine capped at £5,000.
  • Wider environmental offences under the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2010. These (mostly “either way”) offences previously imposed fines of up to £50,000 depending on the type and nature of the offence.

In both cases the former maximum sentencing caps have now been removed and fines that can be imposed by the Magistrates’ court on summary conviction are unlimited.

The rationale behind the new provisions is to enable more proportionate fines to be imposed on “wealthy or corporate offenders or organisations” and to reduce the number of referrals to the Crown Court for sentencing, which can be time consuming and costly. Only time will tell whether, in the absence of the maximum cap, Magistrates will still continue to impose lower fines than the Crown Court.

The three key impacts from this on individuals / businesses are:

  • Risk of much higher sentences from the Magistrates’ court if environmental offences are committed, in particular if the convicted person is seen to be a wealthy individual or corporation.
  • The consequent need to consider, even more carefully, the use of enforcement undertakings (see separate update) where an offence has been committed, so as to avoid a conviction / sentencing.
  • When confronted by an allegation of commission of an “either way” offence, to give serious consideration to opting for a Crown Court trial, where previously a Magistrates’ court trial might well have been preferable.