CORPORATE MANSLAUGHTER AND THE UK GOVERNMENT
The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 created a new criminal offence of corporate manslaughter. The Act enables corporate bodies to face manslaughter charges in appropriate circumstances if a death occurs because of the way in which the body manages or organises its activities amounts to a gross breach of the relevant duty of care. The organisation is guilty of the offence if the way in which senior managers manage or organise its activities is a substantial element in the breach.
A perceived injustice in relation to the law before the Act of 2007 was the fact that Crown bodies, including government departments, for example the Ministry of Defence, and public sector organisations including police forces, were excluded for prosecution by the concept of Crown immunity. The general rule is that where Crown bodies are involved in breaches of health and safety law which would have made a private organisation liable for prosecution, no action could be taken apart from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) issuing a Crown Censure. This is a formal record of the fact that, if it were not for Crown immunity, there would have been a prosecution. There are many examples of the operation of this rule in cases where, apart from Crown immunity, there was enough evidence to bring a prosecution under health and safety legislation.
The Act of 2007 lifted Crown immunity from prosecution. Crown bodies could now be prosecuted for the first time. Government bodies now face an unlimited fine of they are found to have caused death because of their gross corporate health and safety failures.
Since the Act came into force, there have been approximately 16 reported prosecutions for manslaughter. None have been brought since 2017 and none against government departments. It has been commented that the Act is now a dead letter. Most prosecutions involving workplace deaths are brought under general health and safety legislation. This means that government bodies retain their immunity.
It should be noted that the Act of 2007 is not limited to workplace deaths. For example, in November 2013, Princes Sporting Club was fined £134,500 for corporate manslaughter following the death of a child who was killed by a collision with a boat propeller when she fell from an inflatable banana boat ride at a water park. The judge commented that he proposed to fine the company every penny that it had. If it had been trading, he would have given a fine which would have put it out of business.
The question which remains to be answered is whether government departments should face prosecution for multiple deaths caused by gross breaches of their duty of care in relation to infectious diseases. The liability of individuals for such breaches is not covered by the Act. The application of the general law of manslaughter to such individuals in relation to multiple deaths caused by gross negligence remains to be tested.