The need for Sentencing Guidelines for environmental crimes – Part 1
1 February 2017
Managing waste responsibly and legally comes at a cost, and sometimes companies are tempted to break the law when dealing with it. Unfortunately waste crime is a problem for the UK. It causes significant environmental and public health problems, can blight local communities, and costs the economy millions each year in clean up costs.
Waste criminals don’t implement the environmental controls that responsible legitimate operators follow. To show companies and individuals that this is not acceptable, the Sentencing Council published new Sentencing Guidelines for dealing with environmental offences.
The guidelines cover a range of offences related to the disposal of waste that are mostly covered by the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2010. They were introduced in 2014 to ensure that courts in England and Wales take a more consistent approach when dealing with environmental offences.
What the Sentencing Guidelines cover
An environmental offence can be anything covered by these descriptions:
- Unauthorised or harmful deposit, treatment or disposal, etc, of waste.
- Illegal discharges to air, land and water.
- Other offences, e.g. carrying waste without registering.
When the Sentencing Guidelines were introduced, it was the first time that the Sentencing Council had provided guidance for environmental offences. Since then, judges and magistrates have been encouraged to make greater use of the highest levels of fines. In general, financial penalties for lower level offences have remained largely unaffected, but fines for businesses can now be determined by their size, the seriousness of the offence, the culpability of the offender and the harm the crime has caused.
Recent examples of fines given to companies include:
- Carlisle company director ordered to pay £70,000 for 20 charges across seven sites.
- West Sussex removal company director ordered to pay £19,000 for illegal dumping.
- Director of marine waste management company fined £25,000 for illegal disposal of toxic silt into a conservation area.
- Construction company director fined £27,000 plus £10,000 costs for illegally storing waste without a licence, burning waste and failing to prevent seepage.
A closer look…
The sentences guidelines were produced following a request from interested parties, including the National Fly-tipping Prevention Group and the Environment Agency. They were concerned that the fines for environmental crimes were not high enough to deter offenders or consistent enough. Now, the crimes are rated on a sliding scale for various considerations:
Culpability: Ranges from ‘Deliberate’, where an organisation has intentionally disregarded the law or deliberately failed to put systems in place to prevent the offence, to ‘Low to no culpability’, which generally describes an accident.
Harm: Ranges from ‘Category 1’, which describes dangerous polluting matter; major adverse effect or damage; noxious, widespread or pervasive polluting material, to ‘Category 4’, where there is a risk of minor, localised damage.
Organisations: Fines for environmental crimes can be between £100 and £3 million, but larger companies will pay more. For example, a large company with a £50+ million turnover committing a Deliberate Category 1 offence could pay a fine ranging between £450,000 – £3 million, depending on mitigating and aggravating factors. For the same offence, a medium company of £10 million – £50 million turnover could pay a fine ranging from £170,000 – £1 million. The fine range is further reduced for smaller organisations.
It is also worth pointing out that the rules differ for organisations and individuals, with individuals also threatened with a large fine and/or a custodial sentence. The Sentencing Guidelines certainly give magistrates the ability to impose serious repercussions on companies and individuals who commit environmental offences.
In Part 2 of our ‘Sentencing Guidelines’ blog series, we’ll be looking at what companies and individuals can do to avoid committing an environmental crime or getting a hefty fine.