If a company has breached regulations, it can still appeal for fines to be reduced

The Health & Safety Executive has demonstrated an increasing willingness to prosecute companies, and the courts to impose heavy penalties for serious breaches of health and safety legislation. Companies can, however, mount a successful challenge on the level of fines, where they believe they are excessive.

In R v P&O Ferries (Irish Sea) Ltd [2004], P&O Ferries successfully appealed against substantial fines of £250,000 and £50,000 that had been imposed after the company admitted to having contravened s.2(1) of the Health & Safety at Work etc. Act [1974].

P&O operated a freight service, loading and unloading from ferries. During the course of those operations, a stacker truck reversed over an employee, killing him.

In allowing the appeal, the court accepted that penalties imposed should adequately reflect public disquiet at unnecessary loss of life.

The court followed the approach set out by the Court of Appeal in R v Howe & Son (Engineers) Ltd [1999], that the size of a fine should be sufficient to act as a deterrent to other employers in a similar field. In the P&O case the court held that the fines were manifestly excessive, and reduced them to £200,000 and £25,000 respectively. Influential factors in the decision were the lack of significant aggravating factors balanced against numerous mitigating ones. The offences that arose were borne out of carelessness rather than deliberate or reckless breaches of P&O's statutory and regulatory duties. Significantly, P&O had entered a plea at the first opportunity and had no previous convictions for offences of this kind.

' Andrew Stokes is head of the Safety, Health & Environment Group at national law firm Beachcroft Wansbroughs.