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Appeal triggers higher health and safety fines

CONSTRUCTION FIRMS will face higher fines for breaches of health and safety legislation following a landmark Court of Appeal judgment last week.

The ruling will see many more cases - particularly those involving site deaths - referred by magistrates to a higher court which can impose 'appropriate' unlimited fines and even prison sentences.

'Magistrates should always think carefully before accepting jurisdiction in health and safety at work cases,' says the judgment. With fatal accidents, it says 'the penalty should reflect public disquiet at the unnecessary loss of life'.

The Health & Safety Executive welcomed the judgment, which came after contractor F Howe & Son (Engineers) had successfully appealed against a fine for safety violations. The firm's 50,000 fine for breaches of the Health & Safety at Work Act was cut to 22,500 but the Court of Appeal decided to issue new guidance on future prosecutions after hearing the case.

HSE director general Jenny Bacon said: 'The Court of Appeal's observations will greatly encourage our inspectors, who have often been disappointed by low fines.'

She added that prosecuting inspectors would now 'be able to draw a court's attention to the judgement whenever it is relevant to a case.'

The judgment insists that the same legislative standards should apply regardless of the size of the company prosecuted, but it is thought that in future, fines are likely to become more clearly linked to the offending firm's ability to pay.

In extreme cases the judgment says fines could be high enough to put an offending firm out of business. 'A fine must be large enough to bring home to those who manage a company, and their shareholders, the need for a safe environment for workers and the public,' it says. 'There may be cases where an offence is so serious that the defendant ought not to be in business.'

(see Commentary page 10)

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