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Hard(y) Law Talk: Killing Bill takes centre stage

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Around 300 people die at work each year! On 23rd March 2005 the Home Secretary set out new laws to prosecute companies and organisations whose gross failure at senior management level results in a fatality.


The proposed Corporate Manslaughter Bill will update existing laws on corporate killing and create a new criminal offence of corporate manslaughter. This new offence will apply when someone has been killed because the senior management of a corporation has grossly failed to take reasonable care for the safety of employees or others.

This seeks to address the key problem with the current law: the need to show that a single individual at the very top of a company is personally guilty of manslaughter before the company can be prosecuted.

Under this newly proposed offence the courts will be able to examine a wider range of management conduct than at present. It focuses responsibility on the working practices of the organisation, as set by senior managers, rather than limiting investigations to questions of individual gross negligence by company bosses.

The Home Secretary said: “Reforming the laws on corporate manslaughter is part of the Government’s wider agenda to modernise the criminal justice system – putting victims at the heart, protecting the public and ensuring that justice is done.

“The draft Bill covers an extremely complex area of law and it has taken time to get the proposals right. The draft Bill aims to ensure that the law is effective in bringing organisations to account when they have shown a clear disregard for the law with fatal consequences for members of their workforce or others.”

A new Act?
Once an Act, the Bill will ensure that companies are held accountable for actions taken by the company which lead to fatalities at work. The proposed Act intends to convict those responsible for corporate killing.

The existing laws have been criticised in recent years for being an ineffective sanction against criminal negligence, due to the requirement to prove that an individual who: “is considered to embody the company” is found guilty. There is no established definition for what this might mean, so in each case the courts are required to identify the presence of the company’s “directing mind and will.”

To that end, the main focus of this legislation for HR practitioners is the managerial competence of the company. It includes HR and other senior managers becoming aware of situations where the risk that their conduct could cause death or serious injury.

The proposed maximum penalties between 10 years imprisonment to life might well focus minds and hearts in the workplace. However, it is not the case that a specific senior manager must be able to be shown to have personally been reckless or incompetent.

In addition, there will be more far reaching effects behind the scenes for HR to cope with. For instance, in the future including health and safety into the job title of every employee will become the norm, as will appointing a senior director on the board to have responsibility for this core business area. At the same time, spending more time undertaking rigorous risk assessments will be time well spent.

However, given the failure of Stephen Hepburn MP’s Bill on directors’ duties to progress, we await the Home Secretary’s parliamentary commitment to these new proposals.

Dr Stephen Hardy is Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Manchester and a Barrister specialising in employment and EU labour law.

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