Unlimited fines and the fight against knife crime: What it means for retailers

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For the first time, magistrates’ courts now have specific guidelines for sentencing retailers and individuals convicted of selling knives to under 18s. We examine the context behind these guidelines, the potential consequences for retailers, and the steps required to ensure safeguards on age-restricted products stand up to greater scrutiny.

Ben Kinsella, aged 16, had been celebrating the end of exams at a bar in London when he was followed home and stabbed by three men in an unprovoked attack on 29 June 2008. His death sparked widespread protests against knife crime, including a campaign led by his sister, former EastEnders actress Brooke Kinsella, to raise the minimum jail term for knife murders.

In 2010, the minimum term was raised from 15 to 25 years in prison. Eight years later, sentencing guidelines were amended to recommend at least six months of jail time for anyone over the age of 18 caught with a ‘bladed article’ in a public place. Despite these measures, however, the number of knife-related incidents in the UK remains high.

According to the Office for National Statistics, the year ended March 2022 saw the highest number of knife-related murders recorded since 1946. Of the 282 people killed by a bladed weapon during that period, 99 were under 25 and 13 were aged under 16. The year ended March 2023 saw similar rates, with 234 homicide offences involving a knife recorded in England & Wales.

This year, police-recorded offences involving knives or sharp instruments has also risen, with 48,204 offences recorded for the year ended March 2023 – a 5% increase on the number of recorded offences for the year ended March 2022.

This increase, particularly among teenage boys, can be attributed in large part to the pandemic. According to Patrick Green, chief executive of The Ben Kinsella Trust, Covid-19 increased the sense of vulnerability and isolation in young people, making them prime targets for exploitation and recruitment by gangs.

“Gangs are particularly good at picking up on vulnerabilities, are quick to pick them up and indeed lure young people and exploit them in criminal acts,” he said earlier this year.

“Some [young people] feel less secure in their community spaces, more worried. We know that fear is a factor…in terms of carrying a knife. It’s one of the motivations. They feel safe carrying a knife and that alleviates the fear.”

The role of retailers

In addition to tougher sentencing for those carrying knives, scrutiny of how and where young people are procuring them is also increasing. This has manifested in the creation of new sentencing guidelines for organisations and individuals convicted of selling knives to under-18s, which took effect in April this year.

The sale of ‘bladed articles’ to under-18s is illegal under section 141A of the Criminal Justice Act 1988, with the Offensive Weapons Act 2019 expanding the definition of a ‘bladed article’ to include butterfly knives and push daggers, among others.

Up to this point, however, specific guidelines for magistrates’ courts when sentencing this offence have not existed, often leading to an inconsistent approach across England and Wales. The new guidelines, which were published on 15 February 2023 after a period of consultation, aim to remedy this and hold to account any organisation or individual that fails to put in place adequate safeguards to prevent the sale of knives to under-18s.

“Selling knives to children can lead to very serious consequences,” said Sentencing Council magistrate member Jo King. “It is important that all possible safeguards should be put in place to prevent the sale of knives to children, and that the penalties for organisations are substantial enough to bring home to both management and shareholders the need to operate within the law.”

Previously, fines could reach around £200,000, but under the new guidelines this will increase substantially. Organisations with a turnover of more than £50m a year, for example, could face £1m fines for cases in which they have failed to put standard safeguarding measures in place. For larger organisations, the maximum fine could be even higher and, for the most serious cases, unlimited.

Micro-organisations with an annual turnover of £2m or less also face tougher sentences and may even lose their business if the courts deem it to be an “acceptable consequence.” As such, no organisation within the remit of these guidelines can afford to be complacent.

Setting new safeguarding standards

Any business selling age-restricted products needs a robust plan in place detailing the measures taken to prevent the sale of certain items to under-age consumers. For businesses unsure of how their procedures may stand up to scrutiny, a good starting point may be to cross-reference their existing framework against that recommended by the Government’s voluntary agreement on the sale of knives.

In place since 2016, the agreement counts many national supermarkets, retailers, and ecommerce businesses among its signatories and includes various requirements on the sale and display of knives, both in-store and online. These include applying age-verification policies such as Challenge 21 or Challenge 25 to all point-of-sale transactions, whether at checkout, collection points, or during home delivery.

In 2019, the agreement was updated to address concerns regarding the display of knives and has since included recommendations on reducing the likelihood of theft. These include using packaging designs that restrict accessibility and immediate use, as well as displays that require staff intervention.

Putting it into practice

Once a business is satisfied that its procedures are sufficient, it must then ensure that these are communicated to all staff involved in the sale of age-restricted products. An individual employee is often the one authorising a transaction, making it vital that they understand how and when to ask for age verification. Using Challenge 21 or 25 as a guide, retailers should help staff identify a potentially under-age customer, and know how to evaluate a piece of identification to verify their age.

If a purchase is refused, staff should also know where to record this, and what information to include. If retailers find themselves under scrutiny by Trading Standards in relation to knife sales, the records of refusals are usually a key element of any assessment as to whether your policies are working.

Keeping adequate training records not only helps employers to track who has the training required to sell, or approve the sale of, age-restricted products. It also reduces the likelihood of receiving the maximum fine if an employee sells such a product to an under-age customer, whether accidently or deliberately.

Many retailers choose not to sell knives online because of the problems of age verification. If you do choose to sell knives online, a robust age verification process is required which typically would use third-party providers to assess ID and match it to the individual purchasing the product. Such systems are not infallible, however.

Retailers alone are not responsible for the prevention of knife crime, but they do play a significant part in preventing the sale of knives to under-18s. With the prospect of significant fines for those that fail to do so, now is the best time to review existing procedures, update them where necessary, and ensure all staff are following them to the letter.

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