New law to prosecute negligent companies
Tough new legislation to prosecute companies whose gross negligence leads to the death of employees or members of the public has been published in the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill.
Under current law a company can only be convicted of corporate manslaughter if there is enough evidence to find a single senior person guilty. This does not reflect the reality of modern corporate life and to date only seven small organisations have been convicted. The proposed new criminal offence addresses this problem by enabling the courts to consider the overall picture of how an organisation's activities were managed by its senior managers, rather than focusing on the actions of one individual.
An organisation will be guilty of the new offence if someone has been killed as a result of the gross failure of an organisation's senior managers for example to:
- ensure safe working practices for their employees (e.g. that
staff are properly trained and equipment is in a safe
- maintain the safety of their premises (e.g. ensuring that lifts are properly maintained and fire precautions taken).
Home Office Minister Gerry Sutcliffe said:
"Publication of the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill shows the Government's commitment to bringing forward a criminal offence so that companies who have dismally failed to pay proper attention to people's health and safety are bought to justice."
The bill also takes the unprecedented step of lifting Crown immunity from prosecution for the first time. Crown bodies - such as Government departments - as well as other public sector organisations including police forces will be on an equal footing with the private sector when carrying out similar activities.
If a company is found guilty of corporate manslaughter the penalty will be an unlimited fine. The bill also gives the courts power to impose a remedial order which can already be imposed for health and safety offences and require the company to address the cause of the fatality.
"This is a helpful proposal which should encourage corporations to focus on their priorities. Health and safety is already taken seriously by the Health and Safety Executive and by the courts, who already have the power to levy substantial fines in some circumstances - witness the Hatfield prosecutions and fines. But we should recognise the special factors that come into play when a company kills through its negligence. Mere compensation can never bring someone back to life and most corporations are insured against the risk of having to pay compensation for personal injury and death. A criminal conviction and fine hits the guilty in a way that compensation alone cannot and gives some solace to the bereaved that the guilty did not “get away with it.”
Andrew Morgan undertakes industrial accident and disease claims for claimants at FFW’s Personal Injury Practice. He is an APIL Fellow and Coordinator of APIL’s Occupational Health Special Interest Group.