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11 July 20163 minute read

Courts bare their teeth on environmental sentencing

There has been further evidence recently that the Environmental Sentencing Guidelines will lead to the court's flexing their muscles more when it comes to sentencing companies for environmental offences. The most recent demonstration of this is a Lim fine handed down to a waste management company along with almost £250,000 in costs.

The company, which operates mainly in the South-East of England received this huge sentence on 11 April at Harrow Crown Court. The offences related to the receipt and storage of large quantities of hazardous waste at a site in London and the deposit of 3,000 tons of non-hazardous waste at a site in Oxfordshire. Aside from the near £1.25 million that the company has been ordered to pay, it is understood that it has also removed the waste at its own cost from the Oxfordshire site.

This is hot on the heels of some very hefty fines for water companies including a £1million fine at the start of the year in relation to sewage discharges.

It is also a further example of the Environment Agency's focus on the waste management industry which appears to be being mirrored by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA). A recycling firm north of the border has recently been ordered to pay the largest proceeds of crime amount for environmental offences in Scottish history, having received a confiscation order amounting to nearly £350,000 in relation to waste it had stock piled. SEPA indicated that the confiscation order reflected the costs that the company had avoided in undertaking the illegal activities.

As readers will be aware from our previous articles on environmental sentencing, the Court of Appeal made clear last year that in appropriate cases vast fines should be handed down for environmental offences indicating that:

  • "To bring the message home to the directors and shareholders of organisations which have offended negligently once or more than once before, a substantial increase in the level of fines, sufficient to have a material impact on the finances of the company as a whole, will ordinarily be appropriate. This may therefore result in fines measured in millions of pounds"
  • "In the worst cases..., this may well result in a fine equal to a substantial percentage, up to 100 percent, of the company's pre-tax net profit for the year in question, even if this results in fines in excess of £100 million"

A recent consultation considered how courts should reduce sentences for environmental offences where an early guilty plea is provided. Whilst reductions in sentences for early guilty pleas are not a new concept, the consultation sought views on the levels of reduction that should be available and how those levels should differ dependent upon the stage in the court process at which the guilty plea was provided.

It is clear that the level of sentencing for environmental offences is on a significant upward curve and therefore all organisations should consider reviewing their environmental compliance and management systems to ensure they do not get caught up in this trend. Such proactive measures could, to the extent that unintended environmental incidents occur, help to demonstrate robust environmental policies and procedures, which would assist in trying to mitigate the level of any resultant fine.

For further information, please contact the author.