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April 25, 2010

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MSP wins backing to close poverty-plea loophole

Scottish courts could soon be empowered to order background inquiry reports into the finances of companies convicted of health and safety offences.

The Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee is currently considering the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Bill and earlier this month accepted a proposal by Dr Bill Wilson MSP to give courts the option of ordering independent reports into convicted firms’ financial health.

The amendment will mean judges no longer have to base fines on evidence presented by the responsible organisation but can see for themselves the viability of an organisation and the impact any fine would have on its ability to continue to operate.

Research carried out by Dr Wilson showed that companies found guilty of health and safety breaches that led to a fatality were fined £12,500 or less in 50 per cent of cases. He said: “Honest companies that behave within the rules will have absolutely nothing to worry about. However, those unscrupulous operators who break the law will no longer be able to dodge or minimise their fine by pleading poverty.”

He told the Justice Committee: “It strikes me as ridiculous that we rely on convicted companies to provide the reports that will influence the level of fine. That is the equivalent of a judge sternly wagging his finger at a convicted housebreaker and saying in a severe, if not downright angry, tone: ‘You are a terribly naughty fellow. Now, please tell me how big a fine you can afford to pay’.”

Supporting the amendment, Secretary for Justice Kenny MacAskill MSP said: “We are aware that there is a public perception that convicted organisations currently have only minimal fines imposed on them, which are not sufficient to act as an effective deterrent. That perception has, understandably, resulted in calls for further legislative changes to be made to ensure that courts are able to impose appropriate sentences.

“The difficulty in practice is that, as Bill Wilson pointed out, courts often do not have sufficiently up-to-date information about the state of an organisation’s financial health prior to sentencing.”

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