SMALL businesses could have to pay big fines if they don't make sure they have the right environmental procedures in place, a York solicitors' firm is warning.

Under new court sentencing guidelines that came into force this month, organisations with turnovers of less than £2 million a year could face a maximum fine of £95,000 and their directors could go to jail if they pollute the environment or leave litter or waste on the ground, in the air or in water.

Kevin Blount, of Howard & Byrne of York, said: "No responsible firm sets out to break the law, but accidents and errors can never be completely eliminated. The new guidelines draw important distinctions between an accident or rogue employee and a reckless firm.

"Even for a small company responsible for only localised impact with limited clean-up required, this makes the difference between a starting point of £1,000 and £10,000. For directors accused of having been reckless then where there are major clean up costs the starting point is custody."

When magistrates and judges decide on a sentence, national guidelines give them a starting point which the court can then adjust upwards or downwards within set boundaries depending on the facts of the case.

Companies and commercial organisations are responsible for the actions of their employees unless they can prove that they have taken all reasonable steps to ensure that their employees follow the law.

"All too often, firms struggle to evidence what procedures and training they have in place or fail to respond proactively to any potential investigation," said Mr Blount.

His firm is encouraging businesses to check their anti-waste and anti-pollution measures to make sure they are adequate and that they can produce proof they are being followed if necessary.

Larger firms could receive larger fines with those of turnovers of £50 million facing a fine of up to £3 million.