The Corporate Manslaughter Act five years on - are the flood gates about to open?

24 April 2013

This time last year The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act ("the Act") appeared to have had little effect since coming into force in April 2008. Only two companies had been convicted, Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings Ltd and JMW Farms (a Northern Irish case that followed a guilty plea), and it appeared that there was a lack of appetite by both prosecutors and the police to use the legislation. Twelve months on there are some signs of change.

A company may be convicted of corporate manslaughter if it can be shown that the way in which its activities are managed or organised by its senior management is a substantial element in causing a person’s death and amounts to a gross breach of a duty of care owed to that person.

In the course of the year one further trial resulted in the conviction of Lion Steel Ltd, though in somewhat questionable circumstances - the company pleaded to corporate manslaughter in a deal that saved a director from the risk of personal manslaughter liability and likely custody.

Of greater significance have been the decisions to charge five further companies with the offence of corporate manslaughter. These cases are as follows:

  • July 2012 Austin and McLean Ltd (charged under the pre-existing common law due to the date of the death)
  • November 2012 PS & JE Ward Ltd
  • January 2013 MNS Mining Ltd
  • January 2013 Princes Sporting Club Ltd
  • March 2013 Mobile Sweepers (Reading) Ltd

It is true that the companies charged share similar profiles being, in the main, relatively small, owner managed businesses, but the number alone shows that those responsible for investigating and prosecuting cases under the Act are growing in confidence in their use of the legislation.

In addition, in response to a parliamentary question, the Attorney General noted in December 2012 that, since the Act came into force, 141 cases of suspected corporate manslaughter had been referred to the CPS Special Crime Division (the division responsible for advising on charge in such cases). All indications then are that cases are on the increase.

What is the next year likely to bring? Probably not the opening of the floodgates - most estimates before and since the act came into force have suggested that it is unlikely that cases charged per year will exceed double digits - but undoubtedly further companies will be charged. In addition we will see the process, and possibly conclusion, of some of the recently announced prosecutions with the further insights that will bring as to the practical application of the Act. One thing that will probably not be seen in the course of the year is the prosecution of a company of any significant size. Therefore the original hopes that came with the Act – that cases similar to Herald of Free Enterprise or Hatfield might result in corporate manslaughter convictions – will remain unrealised – at least for the time being.

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On January 18th 2014 Ebenezer BIU commented:

The corporate manslaughter Act of 2007 was to harness and complement the common law but within the context of defining what constitutes gross breach of negligence is always conflicting as in some cases,what denotes a senior management is not clearly defined in line with HSAW Act1974 .Can a foreman who supervises a construction site of which a driver slipped over carrying top soil was buried in the soil as a result of not using seat belt and invariably died a day after the accident.would the organization be charged for corporate manslaughter? would the foreman be prima facie answerable as a directing mind of the company? what is the legal stand for the driver who did not use the seat belt that contributed to his demise?

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