A high court judge has ruled that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) must review its decision not to prosecute for corporate manslaughter in the case of a 17-year-old who died within a week of starting work.
It is only the second time in legal history that the courts have intervened in a case involving a fatality at work.
Daniel Dennis died after falling through a skylight on the roof of a Matalan store in Cwmbran, Gwent, while working on the roof of the neighbouring B&Q store. Timber was being stored on the roof and to reach it Daniel had to walk across Matalan’s roof, past skylights.
The skylights had not been fenced off, there was no designated walkway and he was not wearing a safety harness.
His father had previously rung his employer, North Eastern Roofing, which was subcontracted to Midas Construction, to say that Daniel had received no safety training and should not work at heights.
At the inquest, it took the jury less than 10 minutes to reach a verdict of unlawful killing but the CPS decided not to prosecute for corporate manslaughter.
The GMB union then instructed Thompsons Solicitors to seek a judicial review of the CPS decision.
Lord Justice Waller ruled that there had been ‘failures’ over the factors which influenced the CPS not to prosecute. The judge said a solicitor acting for the CPS did not take into account the ‘seriousness of a failure to give proper instruction not to go on the roof prior to induction or proper instruction’. He added that the CPS had not taken sufficient account of the inquest jury’s verdict.
The court said the matter should be referred back to the CPS and that it was possible that a different decision could be made when these factors are taken into consideration. But Lord Justice Waller said the final decision still rests with the CPS.
Mick Antoniw, a partner in Thompsons Solicitors, said: “This is a landmark ruling as it’s only the second case where the courts have interfered in a workplace death.
“It is shocking that in this case, and so many cases, the CPS failed to properly consider the bringing of manslaughter charges.
“We now expect the CPS to review and overhaul the way they consider the evidence in cases involving workplace deaths. It is essential they become more proactive, take a greater interest in the inquest proceedings and develop greater expertise in health and safety law.”
It’s notoriously difficult to bring corporate manslaughter charges under the law as it currently stands and both the GMB and Mr Antoniw say the case shows how much the current bill progressing through parliament is needed.
But Mr Antoniw pointed out that in cases like that of Daniel Dennis, the new bill will not help. “As an unincorporated company, Daniel’s employer would not be covered by the corporate manslaughter law as it is currently worded,” he explained.
Amicus, the UK’s largest private sector union, has long been calling for the new bill to be strengthened.
Its general secretary, Derek Simpson, said: “Despite an inquest into Daniel’s death passing a judgment of unlawful killing, the law does not allow for the prosecution of unincorporated companies like the one that Daniel worked for, even if they are responsible for the death of one of their employees.
“We need the new Corporate Manslaughter Bill, which is due to go into the Lords at Committee stage early this year, to be strengthened so all employers who are responsible for the deaths of their employees can be prosecuted.”