Prosecutions for breaching health and safety laws may be record low levels, but businesses should not relax their standards, a health and safety lawyer stated today.

Bruce Craig, of Pinsent Masons, was responding to figures showing that the Health & 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% on the previous year. The number of cases taken to court has dropped by over a third since 2014-15's total of 600.

HSE inspectors are taking longer to complete investigations, with 65% of fatal investigations completed within 12 months of the incident, compared to 81% the year before, while total fines issued for health and safety offences in the same period dropped from £71.6m to £54.5m.

Mr Craig, a partner in Pinsent Masons’ Aberdeen office who specialises in health and safety, shipping and commercial disputes, said the decline could be down to the requirement for inspectors to be more thorough in their investigations in recent years.

He commented: “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.

“While the figures are surprising, they may be indicative of an increased safety culture in UK business resulting in fewer accidents. It certainly would be wrong and shortsighted for businesses to believe that fewer prosecutions mean that standards can slip with impunity. Simply put, the law will catch up eventually and standards have to remain high not only to comply with the law, but also on a moral basis to keep everyone as safe as possible.”

He added: “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 three to four 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.

“What compounds this is that even when reports are sent by the HSE to the prosecutors, they themselves are under significant resourcing pressures, resulting in even further delays in the case getting to court.”