Fourth statutory corporate manslaughter conviction – are trends emerging?

29 October 2013

A Northern Irish company, J Murray and Sons has become the fourth company to be convicted of corporate manslaughter under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007. It was a tragic case, the judge describing the death of 47 year old Norman Porter in February 2012 as “terrible”, “dreadful” and “needless”. Mr Porter was killed when he was pulled into an animal feed mixing machine.

Can any patterns be discerned from the cases completed to date that give any indication of what to expect in the future?

Like two of the companies previously convicted, JMW Farms Ltd (another Northern Irish case) and Lion Steel Ltd, the conviction followed a guilty plea by the company. Only in the first case therefore, that of Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings Ltd, did conviction follow a trial. Much remains to be discovered about how the Act will operate in contested cases, particularly those involving more complex circumstances or company structures.

Like the guilty plea of Lion Steel Ltd, the guilty plea of J Murray and Sons was accompanied by a decision not to proceed with the prosecution for gross negligence manslaughter of one of the company's directors. The decision to offer a guilty plea on behalf of a company in exchange for the removal of the risk of a personal conviction and likely prison sentence may not have been a difficult one, given that the director concerned, James Murray (aged 69), was the owner of the company.

J Murray and Sons was convicted following its guilty plea on 7 October. On 15 October it was sentenced to pay a fine of £100,000 and prosecution costs of £10,000. In an attempt to ensure the continued employment of the company's 16 employees it is to pay the fine in annual instalments of £20,000. In the cases of Cotswold, JMW Farms and Lion Steel, the fines were £385,000, £187,500, and £480,000 respectively. It is an indication of the size of the companies convicted to date that none of the fines imposed have so far reached the lower threshold of £500,000 suggested by the Sentencing Guidelines Council in its guidance published in 2010.

The patterns that emerge therefore are these:

  • Prosecutions tend to be of small, owner-managed companies.
  • Convictions by guilty plea seem likely to continue if the alternative is the risk to one of the owners of personal conviction and imprisonment.
  • Fines remain below the lower threshold of £500,000 suggested by the Sentencing Guidelines Council.

Two further interesting features emerge. First, Mr Porter's death occurred in February 2012. Even having regard to the relatively simple facts this suggests that cases are progressing through the investigation process to charge more quickly than previously. Further, this is the second Northern Irish case, a surprising fact given the small size of that jurisdiction compared with England and Wales. Is it possible that the law enforcement community in Northern Ireland are more intent than their counterparts on the mainland on the use of the corporate manslaughter offence in the fight against unsafe work practices?

Since November 2012 a further five companies (PS & JE Ward Ltd, MNS Mining Ltd, Princes Sporting Club Ltd, Mobile Sweepers (Reading) Ltd, and Sterecycle (Rotherham) Limited) have been charged with corporate manslaughter. Those cases continue and may shed further light in due course on this offence and the attitude of prosecutors and courts towards it.

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