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Risk: Does corporate manslaughter legislation target the severity of the offence?

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Edward Handley, a former TRL - Transport Research Laboratory - consultant and owner of Work Related Road Safety Solutions (WRRS) looks at corporate manslaughter legislation as new sentencing guidelines are about to be introduced.

I am not totally convinced there is any logic to the fines imposed on companies following a conviction for corporate manslaughter. 

The legislation was intended to cover the situation where a case needed to be brought against a huge organisation with multiple levels of management which made it difficult, or impossible, to identify a "controlling mind" who could be prosecuted. 

All too often the can had to be carried by low level managers who had little authority to make changes - the classic case being the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster where the obvious culprit would have been the captain, but the ship actually had three captains who Townsend Thorensen had managed to reduce to the status of a shift manager.

The vexing thing about the act was the first cases where brought against small companies where the controlling mind was easily identifiable.

If a huge corporation making massive profits flouts health and safety law or principles and people die as a result, everyone would agree that that a massive fine was appropriate, but all too often cases are brought against small or struggling companies and there is not point imposing massive fines, because the company would just go into administration and the fine would never be paid. 

It is the same with cases against local authorities and NHS Trusts, fines are much smaller because a more appropriate fine would hurt the council tax payer or patients, not the individuals responsible.

The level of fine seems to be dependent on the ability of the organisation to pay, not on the severity of the actual offence. Perhaps this is how it should be, but it was not what we were led to believe that Parliament intended.

There is an interesting aspect to recent the Baldwins case. The crane driver was killed in the collision, hence the conviction for corporate manslaughter for failing to ensure the safety of an employee

Suppose however, that the crane driver had survived, but had ploughed into a car and killed the car driver. Who would have been prosecuted and for what? 

I strongly suspect that the crane driver would have been prosecuted for causing death by dangerous driving - for using a vehicle in a dangerous condition - and the company would have been prosecuted for causing or permitting the crane driver's offence. 

The crane driver would have got somewhere between four and eight years in prison, a four or five-year driving ban and a fine. The company would have been fined, probably about £25,000.

Would the company have been prosecuted for corporate manslaughter? I rather doubt it, because the CPS would have regarded gaoling the driver as a satisfactory enough result to present to the public making the expense/effort of a corporate manslaughter prosecution unnecessary. The fine goes to the Treasury - not to CPS - so they would have little incentive to waste their resources chasing the employer.

This may well have also been the situation with the Fry's Logistics case. The driver had gone to prison, public opinion was satisfied, so what point is there in wasting police/CPS resources chasing the company when only the Treasury would benefit? 

The only penalty the company faced was imposed by the Traffic Commissioner who revoked their O licence and banned the owner/transport manager, effectively closing the company down, which is what the CPS should have done

We seem to have reached a strange situation where the penalty for an offence on conviction depends on the result of the accident - which is largely a matter of chance - rather than on the severity of the offence, or corporate failing, which led to the accident happening. 

I believe there is far too much emphasis on sending people to prison these days, be they drivers or bankers, rather than on preventing the offence in the first place.

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