July 2005
Corporate Manslaughter: The Government's Draft Bill for Reform

Last week a judge dismissed corporate manslaughter charges against the engineering group Balfour Beatty over the Hatfield rail disaster, in which four people died in October 2000. The failure of yet another high-profile corporate manslaughter prosecution will increase the already considerable pressure for changes in the law. This adds to the growing concern that current laws relating to corporate manslaughter are failing to provide an effective sanction. The Government believes that the law fails to operate in a sufficiently flexible way to reflect the reality of decision making in organisations and therefore fails to provide proper accountability or justice for victims. It is committed to reforming this area of the law and has published a draft Bill.

This new legislation will introduce a new offence which will hold organisations to account for gross failings that result in a person's death. This will complement, not replace, other forms of health and safety legislation and it would be clearly linked to the standards required under those laws. The aim is to enable prosecutions against companies and other organisations to be more effective, it does not relieve directors or others of their individual liability. The new offence would also apply to Government Departments and other Crown bodies, lifting their immunity from prosecution for the first time.

Amongst many things the draft Bill states:

  • an organisation would be guilty of the new offence if the way in which its senior managers managed or organised its activities caused a person's death and was a gross breach of a duty of care the organisation owed them;
  • the organisation's conduct would be assessed against a number of statutory criteria, including the extent to which it had breached relevant health and safety legislation, whether senior managers were aware of the risk the company was running and whether they had sought to profit from the breach;
  • the new offence would target the liability of organisations themselves and would not apply to individual directors or others whilst they would remain liable to prosecution for existing offences where they are personally to blame; and
  • the offence would be tried in the Crown Court and the penalty would be an unlimited fine.

Clearly we all need to be prepared for when these latest proposals become law.

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