By Paul Chandler
It seems that interesting things are happening in our courts in recent times. No…. I’m not talking about all that tedious Brexit stuff in the Supreme Court, I’m talking about the really nitty gritty that happens on a regular basis. On the 12 March 2015, the changes to the law made in 2012 came into force which gave magistrates more powers to fine offenders. The level five fine, previously capped at £5000 became unlimited and it is clear that magistrates are using this increased power when it comes to streetworks prosecutions.
In September last year, we saw what was deemed at the time, the largest ever fine for mismanaging streetworks was handed down to UK Power Networks in a case with Transport for London. The total fine was £24000 and this included 2 counts of working without a Permit, a level 5 offence, for which they were fined £10000 each, double the previous upper limit for such an offence. The judge came down hard when he said “I have seen a number of these cases and I remain unclear why large organisations such as London Power Networks continue to undermine regulations put in place to reduce inconvenience to road users when conducting streetworks. There is no acceptable excuse in my view and I hope the sentence passed today reflects that."
However, only the previous month, even larger fines had been levied in Boston Magistrates’ Court in a case between Lincolnshire County Council and BT Openreach which saw total fines of £51000 handed down for 15 different offences. Apart from £1000 for working without a notice at one of the locations, the judge issued two charges of £25000 each, one for each site involved and then did not issue a separate penalty for the remaining charges. It’s clear that pre-March 2015, a case such as this would not have attracted fines of this magnitude.
This pattern of more significant fines continues, even when they are not as steep as the those mentioned above. Only this month, Shropshire Council took BT Openreach to court for 5 offences in one location and after Openreach pleaded guilty to all, the judge handed down one fine of £6000, again beyond the previous limit and four of £1000 each. The magistrate stated “There was blatant disregard of the conditions within the permit.”
These cases indicate a clear step change in the way the courts are treating these cases, and now more than ever before, a prosecution is a powerful tool in a Highway Authorities’ tool kit when dealing with poor performing statutory undertakers. JAG(UK) will continue to collate instances of Prosecutions it is made aware of and drawing attention to offences elsewhere in the Country can underline to the court that the case was not a one-off exception to an otherwise stainless record but part of a pattern of poor behaviour.
Paul Chandler is currently Deputy JAG(UK) Manager and Streetworks Manager at Westminter City Council.