• Robert Spicer

Crown Immunity and the rule of law

The case of John Wynne and the Royal Mint


The case of John Wynne, employed by the Royal Mint at Llantrisant, South Wales highlighted the legal rules and procedures surrounding Crown immunity as a clear example of class justice and the mythical nature of the rule of law. The facts, in outline, were that in 2001 Mr Wynne (W), suffered fatal crushing injuries when a six-tonne furnace fell from a crane. W, aged 50, had worked in the metal rolling department of the Mint for 21 years.


The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found itself unable to prosecute the Mint for breaches of health and safety legislation. Instead, it brought Crown Censure proceedings. At the hearing of these proceedings it was stated that the Mint had failed to follow safety procedures. The hearing was not open to the public. A report of the hearing was sent to the government, the Royal Mint and the HSE. W’s widow was not entitled to a copy of the report.


W’s widow is reported to have commented that she was shown pictures at the hearing which showed the furnace hanging from a crane, but not sitting on the hook properly. The furnace was balancing on the top and it fell. It had fallen once before, and no-one was hurt. The Mint’s management had not carried out safety checks. If they had done so, they would have realised that it was faulty and the accident could never have happened.


An HSE inspector is reported to have made the following points to the hearing:

· W’s death was an accident waiting to happen.

· There was sufficient evidence to bring a criminal prosecution against the Mint. · Although Crown property, including the Mint, has to comply with health and safety regulations, it cannot be prosecuted because the Crown cannot prosecute itself.


The shadowy issue of Crown immunity arises in the context of both criminal and civil proceedings. Crown immunity is an ancient, obscure and complex area of law with significant practical implications. The concept is inextricably bound up with the development of the unwritten British Constitution and the relationship between the monarch, central government, legislation and the enforcement of criminal law.


Criminal proceedings

The following points may help with an understanding of Crown immunity:

· The literal meaning of “Crown” is “an ornamental badge of regal power worn on the head of sovereign princes”. In general terms, it means the monarch. This involves a consideration of the constitutional position of the monarchy as the head of state..


· The “Crown” now applies to the collective structure of central government in the United Kingdom.


· The monarch is personally immune from prosecution or criminal proceedings. This is one reason why the execution of Charles I was deemed to be illegal after the restoration of the monarchy.


· In constitutional law, the King (or Queen) can do no wrong. He/she is never a minor and never dies.


· Criminal prosecutions are conducted on behalf of the Crown and generally brought in the name of the Queen. Criminal cases are cited as “R v …” which is an abbreviation of “Regina v…”.


· The general principle is that the Crown is not bound by any statute. This principle may be displaced where there is an intention stated in the statute that the Crown should be bound.


· The principle extends to Crown servants acting in the course of their official duties, Crown property and property occupied by the Crown for public purposes. It covers, for example, the Ministry of Defence, the Prison Service and the Royal Mint.


· Section 48 of the Health and Safety at Work, etc., Act 1974 states, in summary, that sections 1 to 54 of the Act, except for sections 21 to 25 and 33 to 42, shall bind the Crown. But this does not mean that criminal proceedings may be brought against the Crown.


· It is also significant that the Working Time Regulations 1998, regulation 37, states in summary that the regulations have effect in relation to Crown employment. No act or omission by the Crown shall make the Crown criminally liable, but the High Court or the Court of Session in Scotland may make a declaration that such act or omission is unlawful. There appear to be no reported examples of such declarations.


Crown Censure proceedings are brought by the HSE as an alternative to criminal prosecutions. These proceedings have no formal legal basis and it is difficult to find information about them through standard sources. It is thought that the HSE has reached agreement with the government that the proceedings will be used in appropriate circumstances. The proceedings have been used in a number of reported cases, mostly involving the prison service and the Ministry of Defence.


The proceedings are not open to the public. Trade union representatives may be invited to attend. The procedure is not a trial and it is chaired by a senior HSE inspector. The procedure has no statutory basis but is set out in a Cabinet Office Personnel Information Note. The aim of a Crown Censure hearing is to seek acknowledgment of the problem and to improve standards of health and safety. The absence of an agreed and documented procedure led to “some difficulties”. This resulted to the issue of the Cabinet Office note.

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