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Architects may face jail under new law

Breaches of health and safety could lead to imprisonment, a top law firm has warned

The Health and Safety (Offences) Act 2008 comes into effect today (16 January 2009).

The private member’s bill received royal assent in October 2008 and amends Section 33 of the Heath and Safety at Work Act 1974, increasing the maximum penalty for breaching regulations from £5,000 to £20,000 in a magistrates' court. But employees also face a prison sentence if found guilty of contributing to a health and safety offence by their consent, connivance or neglect.

Law firm Eversheds' regulatory partner David Young said: ‘The reassurance given by the MP [Keith Hill] proposing the Act is that a custodial sentence will be imposed only in the most serious ‘public outrage’ cases.

‘I think it is inevitable that initially more people are held personally accountable then has historically been the case but I think the intention is deterrence. Does this mean that more people – an architect under a CDM contract for example – will be held personally accountable and at worst imprisoned for health and safety breaches? In practical terms, probably not, but could they? Yes.’

John Heath, managing director of construction health and safety consultants Morgan Safety warned that the new act could also increase design cost: 'The 'scare factor' of the act will mean that architects and all designers will increase the level of paperwork produced, building a defence to demonstrate their competence should a case arises. I doubt if this cost can be passed on to the client.'

Richard Shaw, legal counsel for Bovis Lend Lease said 'Major contractors like ourselves take health and safety very seriously and the new act does not change things in terms of our responsibility. The changes are in terms of consequence.'

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