As of next Monday, employers convicted of corporate manslaughter could be subject to unlimited fines, according to a new judgement issued by the Sentencing Guidelines Council.
The Council, which aims to promote consistent sentencing across courts in England and Wales, indicated that penalties related to the death of a staff member or members of the public “must be punitive and sufficient to have an impact on the defendant”, although they should be modified to reflect the seriousness of the offence and financial circumstances.
As a result, corporate manslaughter, which involves gross breaches of a legal duty of care at a senior level, “will seldom be less than £500,000 and may be measured in millions of pounds”, the Council said.
Health and safety breaches that lead to death, meanwhile, “will seldom be less than £100,000 and may be measured in hundreds of thousands of pounds or more”.
Tim Hill, health and safety partner at law firm Eversheds, said the guidelines signalled a “clear intention” to introduce “a step-change in the level of fines to reflect the public perception that historically fines have been too low”.
Research undertaken by the Centre for Corporate Accountability indicates that the majority of large companies convicted of health and safety offences that led to death only received fines of less than one 700th of their annual turnover. As a result, if an individual earning the national average of £24,769 per year received a comparable penalty, they would be fined only £35.
But the Council’s move also mirrors the steady rise in fines imposed by courts for health and safety breaches over recent times, Hill said. “In conjunction with the threat of up to two years in prison for individual directors, managers or employees for health and safety breaches, organisations should now be in no doubt that demonstrating a strong health and safety culture is as strategically vital as dealing with any other business risk,” he added.
The first corporate manslaughter prosecution to be conducted under the new ruling involves Cotswold Geotechnical Ltd and is due to start in the next couple of weeks.
The Corporate Manslaughter Act and Corporate Homicide Act 2007, to which the new guidelines apply, indicates that to secure a conviction, the prosecution must prove that gross negligence at a corporate level led to a death. It must also prove a substantial part of any breach was the result of the way the organisation’s activities were organised or managed.