Manslaughter charge sticks
THREE weeks ago, on February 15, a small but important piece of legal history was made when Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings became the first company to be convicted of an offence under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007.
The case involved a 27-year-old geologist who was investigating soil conditions in a deep trench when it collapsed and killed him. During the trial, it became clear that the company had failed to take reasonable precautions to protect him and that it ignored industry guidance prohibiting access into a pit more than 1.2 metres in depth.
As a result of the conviction, the company was fined �385,000, a very significant sum for a company employing only eight people, although less than the recommended starting point of �500,000 set by the Sentencing Guidelines Council.
Under the 2007 Act, an organisation is guilty of corporate manslaughter if the way in which its activities are managed or organised causes a death and amounts to a gross breach of a duty of care to the person who died.
Securing a conviction for corporate manslaughter has always been a major problem for the Crown Prosecution Service which is why new legislation was introduced in 2007.
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Several high-profile disasters in the past led to prosecutions for corporate manslaughter under the previous legislation but, in almost all cases where large companies were involved, it proved impossible to pin criminal responsibility on an individual or group of individuals at the top of the company structure.
The difficulty was in identifying the “directing mind” whose decisions led to the disaster.
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The new law adopts a different approach by allocating criminal responsibility for any breach of duty which results from the way the company’s activities are managed or organised by senior management.
Senior management is defined as the people who play a significant role in making key decisions about how the company’s activities are organised.
The overall control of Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings was in the hands of one director who was originally charged with gross negligence, manslaughter and a health and safety offence. Those charges were dropped after the trial judge ruled that he was not fit to stand trial.
The acid test for the new act will come with the prosecution of a large organisation which has multiple directors and more sophisticated health and safety procedures.
Such an organisation will be much better placed than a small company to resist the arguments that its senior management had organised its activities in such a way as to be in breach of its duty of care.