Law Commission calls for greater use of civil penalties
The Law Commission has proposed a cut in the number of criminal offences for regulatory breaches. In a consultation published last week, the commission suggested that using civil penalties for technical breaches of farming, food safety, banking and retail laws would save the criminal justice system £11m a year and reduce cost to regulators. The commission said it is disproportionate for regulators to rely wholly on criminal law to punish and deter activities that are merely ‘risky’. It recommended that criminal sanctions should only be used to tackle serious wrongdoing. In its paper, Criminal Liability in Regulatory Contexts, the commission proposed that regulatory authorities should make more use of cost-effective, efficient and fairer civil measures to govern standards of behaviour. It said a set of common standards should be established to assess levels of wrongdoing, and existing low-level offences should be repealed where civil penalties could be as effective. The commission said that, where criminal offences are created in a regulatory context, they should require proof of fault elements such as intention, knowledge, or a failure to take steps to avoid harm being done. It said business and individuals should generally not be penalised by the criminal law if they have made real efforts to comply with their legal obligations. Jeremy Horder, the commissioner leading the project, said: ‘Civil penalties are quicker and cheaper to enforce but they are not a soft option. People who breach regulations will often discover that civil fines can be higher than the penalties imposed by the [criminal] courts. ‘The commission believes that a principled criminal law should be used by regulators to target only the most serious cases of unacceptable risk-taking.’ Law Society president Linda Lee welcomed the consultation. She said: ‘In recent years, the UK criminal justice system has been subject to a constant barrage of new legislation and offences… This expansion of criminal law has criminalised an increased proportion of the population and further disrupted the balance between the power of the state and the freedom of the individual.’ The consultation closes on 25 November.