Consultation underway on sentencing for UK environmental offences

Home Secretary Jack Straw has directed the Sentencing Advisory Panel to propose to the Court of Appeal that it should frame a sentencing guideline on environmental offences.

Last month the Panel issued a consultation paper on sentencing levels which damage the environment, including air and water pollution and the illegal disposal of waste.

Environmental Offences: A Consultation Paper highlights growing public concern about such offences, and aims, in the words of the Sentencing Advisory Panel, to “achieve consistency of sentencing in these offences, which may involve a wide range of defendants: from individuals through small firms to multi-nationals and other large companies with multi-million pound assets”.

The Panel is seeking views on a number of questions, including: how sentencers should determine the appropriate balance between the culpability of the offender and the extent of the damage caused; how much weight sentencers should give to aggravating and mitigating factors (such as whether a company is a persistent offender, or has a previously clean record; whether the offence was a deliberate breach of the law, or the result of carelessness); the circumstances in which an individual offender should receive a custodial or community sentence rather than a fine; and how to calculate the appropriate level of fine for a corporate defendant, bearing in mind the need to create sufficient pressure on management and shareholders to tighten regulatory compliance and change company policy.

The five offences on which the panel has been directed to advise are:

  • carrying on a prescribed process without, or in breach of, authorisation
  • depositing, recovering or disposing of controlled waste without a site licence or in breach of its conditions
  • polluting controlled waters
  • abstracting water illegally
  • failing to meet packaging, recycling and recovery obligations, or to register or to provide information.

Current sentencing figures indicate that, where individuals are being sentenced for these offences 71% are fined, 23% are discharged, 2% receive a community sentence and 4% a custodial sentence. When companies are sentenced, 96% are fined and 4% are discharged.

In the consultation document, the Panel proposes that: “The fine which is imposed should reflect the means of the company concerned. In the case of a large company the fine should be substantial enough to have a real economic impact which, together with the attendant bad publicity resulting from prosecution, will create sufficient pressure on management and shareholders to tighten regulatory compliance and change company policy.”

Copies of the consultation can be obtained from the Sentencing Advisory Panel, telephone 020 7273 3046, with responses to be received by 17 November 1999.

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