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How Do the Sentencing Guidelines Help Determine Fines?

Read about environmental sentencing guidelines influencing fines following offences.

The environmental sentencing guidelines are a benchmark for determining the sentence for an environmental offence. They cover individual offenders and organisations and include many factors to be considered when determining a sentence. This blog will give a summary of the factors taken into consideration when deciding a fine for organisations who commit an environmental offence.

Offence Category

The offence category is decided by considering the culpability of the organisation and level of environmental harm caused by the offence. The level of culpability is determined by the extent to which systems to prevent the offence have been put in place and enforced and whether organisations have disregarded or shown wilful blindness for the law. The categories of culpability include deliberate, reckless, negligent and little/ no culpability.

The levels of environmental harm range from category 1, the most severe to category 4. When considering the category, both the likelihood of harm and the extent of actual harm is taken into consideration. Examples of category 1 incidents include polluting material of a dangerous nature being released and major adverse effects or damage to water or air quality. At the other end of the scale, category 4 is limited to a risk of category 3 (for example, risk of minor, localised adverse effect or damage to air or water quality). For more detailed information about each level of culpability and harm, read our fact sheet here.

Organisation Size

After establishing the offence category, the financial circumstances of the offending organisation are considered. The guidelines define organisation sizes from micro (turnover equivalent less than £2 million) to large (turnover equivalent over £50 million). For each organisation size and offence category, the guidelines provide a starting point and suggested range for the fine, which can shift according to mitigating and aggravating circumstances. For example, a large organisation with deliberate culpability committing a category 1 offence will start their fine at £1,000,000, with a range between £450,000 – £3,000,000. The guidelines allow that very large organisations may move outside of the suggested range to ensure a proportionate sentence is reached.

Other Factors

The guidelines provide examples of factors that determine whether the fine slides up or down from the starting point, within the range. Aggravating factors will generally increase the fine from the starting point and examples include previous convictions, a history of non-compliance and ignoring the risks identified. Mitigating factors will generally decrease the fine from the starting point and example include evidence of steps taken to remedy the problem, little or no financial gain and self-reporting of the incident.

When determining a sentence for an environmental offence, there are many factors to be taken into consideration including culpability, environmental harm and the size of the organisation. The guidelines are just a guide however, and fines can exceed the stated range. The court is encouraged to review whether the sentence meets the objectives of punishment, deterrence and removal of gain derived through committing the offence. Overall, it is important to be diligent in environmental management to help prevent an offence for occurring. If an accident does occur, evidence of proper care and systems will be considered when determining a sentence.