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Forget corporate manslaughter – safety’s the issue

Oxford, UK: Companies should not be distracted from safety management by headline news about the new offence of corporate manslaughter says lawyer,  Emma Davies at law firm Manches LLP.

“The focus on ‘corporate manslaughter’ can therefore be unhelpful because it distracts from awareness of other possible offences and arguably safety generally. Businesses need to focus on their management approach to health and safety, and their practical strategy for first avoiding, or then learning from, safety incidents,” she says.

The offence of ‘corporate manslaughter’ was introduced in April 2008, redefining the notoriously unsuccessful offence of manslaughter by gross negligence for companies (although that offence still exists for private individuals).
“It should be remembered that corporate manslaughter is therefore assessed by reference to existing health and safety laws – although a new offence, it did not change the substantive law,” Davies says.

“There have been three prosecutions for corporate manslaughter in 4 years, and yet over 250 workers die every year in work-related accidents; so it is clear that not every death results in a prosecution for corporate manslaughter. With so few cases being brought, it is difficult to pinpoint why this is.”

“What is clear is that there are many prosecutions under s.2(1) Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 (HSWA) and its associated legislation – and the fines in these cases can be higher than for corporate manslaughter. The Sentencing Council’s Guidelines make it clear that where a breach of the HSWA is shown to have caused death, the appropriate fine will seldom be less than £100,000 and may be measured in hundreds of thousands of pounds or more.”

In practice there is a wide variance in fines dependent on the specifics of the case. The HSE will prosecute where companies have failed to heed warnings or failed to learn from similar previous incidents. Such circumstances will usually lead to higher fines too: in May 2012 a company that had two fatalities in separate incidents a year apart, but in very similar circumstances, was fined £118,500.