Health and safety expert Bruce Craig, of legal firm Pinsent Masons, has warned that while prosecutions for breaching health and safety laws are at record low levels, businesses have a duty to maintain the highest standards.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) prosecuted just under 400 cases in the UK in 2018/19, the lowest number for five years and a drop of 23 per cent on the previous year. Recent statistics also show the number of cases taken to court dropped by over a third since 2014/15, when 600 health and safety cases were in court.
It was also revealed that HSE inspectors are taking longer to complete investigations, with 65 per cent of fatal investigations completed within 12 months of the incident, compared to 81 per cent the year before, while total fines issued for health and safety offences in the same period dropped from £71.6 million to £54.5 million.
Mr Craig, a partner in Pinsent Masons’ Aberdeen office who specialises in health and safety, shipping and commercial disputes, said the fall in cases being brought to court could be down to the requirement for inspectors to be more thorough in their investigations than was the case some years ago.
He said: “The HSE have indicated a factor in the fall in prosecutions could be a larger than normal number of inspectors in training, but it could also be that higher standards applied to investigations than was the case some years ago require more forensic and time-consuming inquiries.
Mr Craig also highlighted that the length of time that it takes to get serious health and safety cases to court could impact the quality of evidence at trial.
He said: “In developed systems of justice such as exist throughout the UK, it is unfortunate to say the least that health and safety cases are routinely taking 3 to 4 years, often longer, to get to court.
“That is unfair to anyone injured, to the family of anyone killed, to witnesses and to accused parties, and is also detrimental to the interests of justice.
“The longer it takes between an incident occurring and it getting to court, the greater the risk that, due to the passage of time, the evidence of witnesses is not accepted at trial as being reliable or credible.”