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Magistrates’ powers have been widened significantly in the past week, bringing an end to the upper limit of fines for ‘serious offences’. 

Previously capped at £5,000, The Legal Aid and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 Regulations 2015, have abolished the upper limit. 

Unlimited fines can now be issued against ‘level five’ offences, although magistrates will retain their maximum custodial sentencing powers of six months. 

Where a fine is deemed by magistrates as the most appropriate sentence for the level five offence, the amount an offender would pay back could run into several thousands of pounds. 

Although fines on their own may not be enough of a deterrent, this change in sentencing powers is likely to be a welcome one, as for some offenders the previous £5,000 cap would not have made a huge impact.

Those supplying adult fireworks, crossbows, knives, axes or blades to those under the age of 18 who have reaped the financial rewards of doing so, are much more likely to be fined a considerable sum. So, too, will those wilfully selling alcohol to children. 

Of course, it depends on the circumstances of each case, but broadly speaking, unlimited fines afford greater proportionality in sentencing. This is especially true where the offender has the financial means with which to pay the fine. 

Below are some examples of the types of offence that are now included:
- Sale of alcohol to children
- Harassment (without violence)
- False statements or representation to obtain social security benefit
- Selling, supplying, or offering to supply adult fireworks and potential weapons
- Failure to comply with an improvements notice to make sure properties are safe and habitable

For corporate businesses in particular, those selling goods that are illegal to sell to those under 18, will need to be even more cautious of breaching the law, in much the same way as those breaching health and safety and environmental laws. 

Prior to the change in law, most summary only offences maximum fines were set by reference to five statutory levels of £200, £500, £2,500, and £5,000. There are already some exceptional statutory maximum fines for offences dealt with by magistrates. This is where the financial gain realised by the offender is so large that the normal fine limits are inadequate. Typically, these include health and safety and environmental offences committed by companies, with fines in the region of £20,000 - £50,000. 

With the new sentencing powers, we’ll likely see magistrates imposing fines for sums of money that reflect the seriousness of the offence and take into account the known means of the offender, in a similar way.

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