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R v Balfour Beatty Rail Infrastructure Services Ltd, Court of Appeal Criminal Division, 5 July 2006

11 August 2006
The issues

Health and Safety at Work – Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 – proportionality of fine imposed on contactor for failure to discharge duty as employer under Health and Safety at Work Act.

The facts

Balfour Beatty Rail Infrastructure Services Ltd are one of two companies charged with Corporate Manslaughter and Breach of Section 3 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1874 as a result of their alleged failures which had been the cause of the Hatfield rail disaster. The charges of corporate manslaughter were dismissed. Balfour Beatty Rail Infrastructure Services Ltd entered at the last moment a plea of guilty to the breach of Section 3. The Judge assessed Balfour Beatty Rail Infrastructure Services Ltd’s culpability at between two and three times that of the other Defendant and fined the other Defendant £3.5 million and Balfour Beatty Rail Infrastructure Services Ltd £10 million. Balfour Beatty Rail Infrastructure Services Ltd appealed against the fine.

The decision

Balfour Beatty Rail Infrastructure Services Ltd appealed on the grounds that the Judge had over estimated its culpability; that the level of fine was excessive and that the Judge had erred in assessing the relative culpability of the two Defendants and thirdly that the Judge had erred in failing to make any reduction in respect of the fact that Balfour Beatty Rail Infrastructure Services Ltd had pleaded guilty.

The severe terms in which the Judge castigated the Defendant’s breach of duty were justified. Over many months the Defendants approached the duties upon which the safety of rail travellers depended had been lamentable. The Court was not impressed by this ground of appeal.

The Court was concerned with the disparity between the fine imposed on Balfour Beatty Rail Infrastructure Services Ltd and that imposed on Rail Track. The Court would see no reason why the Judge should not have had regard when considering Rail Track’s culpability to the fact that the seriousness of Rail Track’s failure to ensure that Balfour Beatty Rail Infrastructure Services Ltd performed its duties was the greater because Rail Track had agreed in February 2000, at the instigation of Balfour Beatty Rail Infrastructure Services Ltd, that this section of the track needed replacing and knew, or should have known, that the replacement had not been effected.

What effect, if any should the size of the fine imposed on Rail Track have on Balfour Beatty Rail Infrastructure Services Ltd’s appeal? Disparity between the sentences of two Defendants was not an automatic reason for reducing a sentence. The test had been approved in R v Fawcett in 1983:- namely “would right, thinking members of the public, with knowledge of the relevant facts and circumstances, learning of this sentence consider that something had gone wrong with the administration of justice”. The disparity in the two fines in this case was so great that the tests were satisfied. To restore proportionality between the two fines would require Balfour Beatty Rail Infrastructure Services Ltd’s fine to be reduced to an unacceptable level having regard to the appropriate principles. The fine of £10 million was severe. There was scope for a reduction in the interest of proportionality and the fine would therefore be reduced to £7.5 million.

As to a discount for the guilty plea, the Judge had decided that it was not appropriate on the basis that they had not pleaded guilty at the first reasonable opportunity. The Court of Appeal did not accept that the outstanding charges of manslaughter precluded the company from pleading guilty to the Section 3 offence at the outset.

The appeal would be allowed to the extent that the fine of £10 million would be quashed and replaced with a fine of £7.5 million.

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The content on this page is provided for the purposes of general interest and information. It contains only brief summaries of aspects of the subject matter and does not provide comprehensive statements of the law. It does not constitute legal advice and does not provide a substitute for it.

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