R v. Sellafield Ltd – Very Large Organisations and environmental and health and safety offences

Richard Matthews QC led for the defence in this defining appeal before the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, which concerned the sentence of very large organisations for health and safety offences and environmental offences. The approach adopted by the Court informed the subsequent guidelines issued by the Sentencing Council.

S, with turnover of £1.6 billion and an annual profit of £29 million, had been fined £700,000 for offences relating to the disposal of radioactive waste. N, with turnover of £6.2 billion, had been fined £500,000 following a collision at an unmanned level crossing which resulted in very serious injuries to a child. The judge found that S’s failure was systemic and potentially exposed the public and those who handled waste off-site to unnecessary risk. S had relevant previous convictions. The judge took into account the fact that the instant breaches were not deliberate or reckless, no harm had been done and the actual risk of harm was low.

S submitted that the level of fine equated to a major public disaster or loss of life, a significant nuclear event or an unmitigated environmental pollution incident. N submitted that a starting point of £750,000 would only be appropriate where there was more than one fatality, a public disaster, or where the defendant was convicted of corporate manslaughter.

S’s offences were of medium culpability, extending to management but with no actual harm and a very low risk of harm. Guilty pleas had been entered at the first opportunity and S had co-operated considerably. Account was also taken of its previous offences. It was not appropriate to consider a fine of £1 million as apposite only to a major disaster. That would ignore the court’s obligation under s.164 of the 2003 Act to have regard to the offender’s financial circumstances and the sentencing guidelines. There was no ceiling on the amount of fine that could be imposed. It was clear that a fine of £700,000 after a guilty plea reflected moderate culpability, no actual harm and a very low risk of harm. It also had to be viewed against the requirement that directors or shareholders of companies involved in the nuclear industry had to give the highest priority to safety, as Parliament had directed. The fine imposed would achieve the statutory purposes of sentencing by emphasising to those directors and professional shareholders the seriousness of the offences, and provide a real incentive to remedy the failures found to exist.

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