Corporate manslaughter: the facts

There has been much confusion and misreporting about corporate manslaughter in the last 24 hours. To correct some common misunderstandings, and in the light of the Lord Chancellor’s  plans for a greater public understanding of the legal system, here are some facts on corporate manslaughter prosecutions in England and Wales. 

There have been 24 convictions for corporate manslaughter since it became a criminal offence in 2008, all of which are detailed at Corporate convictions tracker. 

Section 1(1) of the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 defines the offence of corporate manslaughter and as the title suggests only applies to corporate bodies.  It builds on key aspects of the common law offence of gross negligence manslaughter which is the offence an individual (a real person as opposed to a legal person) can be prosecuted for.

Liability for corporate manslaughter is not contingent on the guilt of one or more individuals but depends on a finding of gross negligence in the way in which the activities of the organisation are run. It is not necessary to identify the directing mind and will of the company.

Corporations, which are defined as any “body corporate, whether incorporated within the UK or elsewhere”, can be liable for corporate manslaughter. Partnerships or entities of a similar character formed outside of the UK, trade unions and employers’ associations may also be liable for corporate manslaughter, if the organisation concerned is an employer. For more see Note for the board on corporate manslaughter, Practical Law UK Standard Document 

An organisation will be guilty of corporate manslaughter if all of the following factors are present:

  • It owed a relevant duty of care to the victim.
  • It is in breach of its duty of care as a result of the way in which its activities are managed or organised by its senior management.
  • The way in which its activities were managed or organised caused the victim’s death.
  • The management failure amounts to a gross breach of the duty of care.

An individual cannot be guilty of committing, aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring the commission of the offence of corporate manslaughter. However, individuals can be prosecuted either for gross negligence manslaughter or for associated health and safety offences (and have been in several cases to date).

Whilst there have been hundreds of convictions for health and safety offences in recent years largely because they are strict liability offences, there have been far fewer convictions for corporate manslaughter -just 24 since the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 was implemented in 2008, although this may be increasing as there were three convictions in the same week in May see Legal Update, Two companies fined £500,000 and £300,000 following conviction for corporate manslaughter (Crown Court).

There has been a rise in gross negligence manslaughter convictions where individual directors and site managers or foremen are prosecuted as well as the company. The courts have indicated that where lives are put at risk a custodial sentence will usually be appropriate. See   Suspended sentence for gross negligence manslaughter unduly lenient (Court of Appeal) (Northern Ireland), Practical Law UK Legal Update Case Report 

There were 137 work place deaths recorded between April 2016 and March 2017.

Practical Law Morag Rea

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