Government passes the buck on corporate manslaughter bill

Changes in the law to make it easier to prosecute companies for manslaughter are now far less likely to take place before the next election as the government announced further delays to its bill that would make "corporate killing" a new offence.

July 1, 2004 · 3 min read

Home Office minister Baroness Scotland apologised to a conference organised in April by the Centre for Corporate Accountability that the draft bill had not yet been published. However, she said: “We are still hoping to publish a draft bill before the end of the current parliamentary session.” This means by the beginning of the next queen speech -around October 2004.

But Scotland emphasised that the government would remain committed to its manifesto commitment to reform in this area.

The Labour government first announced its intention to legislate in this area at the 1997 Labour Party conference. A year earlier the Law Commission had proposed that there should be a new offence of “corporate killing” which would allow a company to be prosecuted for a homicide offence without the need to prosecute a director or senior manager of the company.

One of the main reasons for the delay appears to be a conflict within government about whether “crown bodies” – government departments and organisations controlled by them – should be prosecuted for the new offence. Although it would be difficult to allow private companies but not government bodies to be prosecuted for a homicide offence (allowing private, but not Home Office, prisons to be prosecuted, for example), some ministers remain uncertain about removing crown immunity.

With only five small companies convicted for manslaughter, the proposal to enact a corporate killing offence has been widely supported by trade unions and safety groups. However, there is now much greater uncertainty about the contents of the draft bill.

There is concern, for example, that the government has rowed back on in its summer 2000 consultation document, which suggested that any new bill would increase not only the criminal accountability of companies, but also of company director and managers. The Home Office has made it clear that the government’s bill will not be directed at the conduct of company directors.

The new reforms will be nowhere near as radical as reforms passed by Canadian parliament in November 2003. The new Canadian legislation:

  • applies not only to “companies”, but also to all other organisations including “unincorporated associations” and all “public bodies”;
  • makes it easier to prosecute these bodies when serious negligence has resulted in death and/or in serious injuries;
  • imposes a legal duty upon directors and supervisors “to take reasonable steps to prevent bodily harm to that person, or any other person, arising from that work or task”;
  • and allows the courts to sentence the company to probation orders, requiring organisations to make far reaching changes to its policies and report them back to the court.

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