High fines handed out under the sentencing guidelines may have gained the most headlines in recent months, but according to a leading health and safety lawyer, it’s the small and medium companies experiencing the biggest impact.
Chris Morrison, partner, at Clyde & Co, said: “We’re not seeing very large companies, that is, £1bn plus turnover companies, receiving fines much different to companies turning over 400, 500, or 600 million pounds – it’s simply not happening.”
“What we are seeing is the squeezed middle – particularly SMEs who are not receiving the largest fines numerically, but when you look at their turnover, percentage-wise they really are being hit.”
He referred to several fines in construction from the past year where the fines, although large ostensibly, amounted to less than 0.1% of turnover. Balfour Beatty Utility Solutions, fined £2.6m for a trench fatality was still only 0.029% of its turnover of £8.8bn, as one example.
In contrast, Bulgarian firm Walltopia, a medium sized firm with a turnover of £14m, was fined 500k, 3.57% of turnover, after work at height risks were exposed at an adventure park in Derby. Premier Roofing, defined as a small company with a turnover of £6.5m was fined £140,250 for the death of a worker, 2.15% of turnover.
“We’re seeing the SME businesses impacted the most by this particular change in sentencing guidelines,” he concluded.
The 2016 sentencing guidelines require the judge to assess turnover, before setting the starting point for a fine. He can then adjust this up or down, according to a range of other factors including level of culpability and risk of harm.
At the recent Burghley House Trust sentencing over the fatal crushing of its butler, the judge sought advice from prosecution and defence over how to reach the fine. Defence barrister, Jamas Hodivala, guiding him, said it was “an art, not a science.”
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