What is corporate manslaughter?

A criminal offence under UK law, corporate manslaughter involves the death of an individual as a result of the actions of a company or organisation following a gross breach of their duty of care.

For a case of corporate manslaughter to be prosecuted:

  1. The offence must have been committed by an organisation rather than an individual
  2. The offence must have derived from a breach of the company’s duty of care, rendering them negligent
  3. Said breach must be gross, whereby the conduct falls below what is reasonably expected of the company
  4. The actions of the senior management of the company must have contributed considerably to the breach
  5. The breach must have resulted in death

Corporate manslaughter is one of four categories of involuntary manslaughter in UK law, alongside:

  1. Unlawful act manslaughter – an intentional unlawful act which must be objectively dangerous and lead to the death of another
  2. Gross negligence manslaughter – a duty of care towards the victim is breached as a result of gross negligence by the defendant, leading to the death of the victim
  3. Subjectively reckless manslaughter – a subjectively reckless act which leads to the death of another

Manslaughter is defined as an act of homicide without premeditation, where the death was caused recklessly but without intention.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the offence is known as corporate manslaughter, whilst in Scotland it is known as corporate homicide.

The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007

The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 (CMCHA) became law on 6th April 2008. This landmark act meant that – for the first time – organisations could be found guilty of committing corporate manslaughter as a result of severe management failures, resulting in a breach of basic duty of care.

Prior to the Act becoming law, corporate organisations and companies could be prosecuted for a number of offences – including gross negligence manslaughter. However for the company to be found guilty of the offence, an individual who embodied or represented the company – known as a ‘controlling mind’ – must have been proven to be guilty of the offence.

The introduction of the CMCHA meant that the company could be convicted of corporate manslaughter if it could be proven that the senior management of the business were responsible for a gross breach of duty of care, rather than one individual.

Any death that occured prior to the Act becoming law on 6th April 2008 would be governed by the previous laws on corporate manslaughter.

Are there any exemptions?

Some organisations are exempt from corporate manslaughter convictions. The CMCHA legislation does not apply to:

  1. The armed forces – including counter-terrorism and peacekeeping operations
  2. Occupations which require hazardous training – such as the police force

What guidelines are used to determine the sentence for corporate manslaughter?

The Sentencing Guidelines Council specify ten stages which the court can should refer to when determining an appropriate sentence for case of corporate manslaughter:

  1. How serious is the offence?
  2. Were there any aggravating circumstances or mitigating circumstances?
  3. What is the nature of the organisation?
  4. Is compensation appropriate?
  5. What are the consequences of a fine?
  6. What is an appropriate fine in light of the circumstances of the case
  7. Is the organisation pleading guilty?
  8. What are the costs of the case?
  9. Is a publicity order required?
  10. Is a remedial order required?

How is the severity of the offence of corporate manslaughter determined?

While the offence itself is of the utmost severity due to the death of one or more individuals, the level of severity will be determined by the judge at the sentencing hearing in light of a number of factors, including:

  1. If the organisation could have reasonably foreseen the offence
  2. How far the organisation fell below an appropriate level of conduct
  3. If a similar breach has occurred in the organisation before
  4. How culpable the organisation’s senior management are in the offence

What are aggravating circumstances in a case or corporate manslaughter?

The Sentencing Guidelines Council specifies a number of aggravating factors in their sentencing framework for corporate manslaughter including:

  1. If the offence caused multiple deaths
  2. If the offence caused extremely serious personal injury
  3. If the organisation failed to act on warnings or advice  – such as from company health and safety representatives
  4. If the organisation failed to respond to and act upon previous similar circumstances
  5. If the organisation deliberately failed to obtain or comply with the required regulations and licences
  6. If costs were cut at the risk of employee safety
  7. If any vulnerable persons sustained injury

The presence of any of these factors in an offence will increase the sentence.

What are mitigating circumstances in a case of corporate manslaughter?

The Sentencing Guidelines Council also specifies a number of mitigating factors for the court to consider including:

  1. If the organisation readily accepted they were at fault
  2. If the organisation cooperated fully with the investigation into the offence
  3. If the organisation made genuine and prompt attempts to address the defects and issues which led to the act of negligence
  4. If the organisation has a responsible attitude to health and safety and a good health and safety record

The presence of any of these factors in an offence may reduce the sentence.

What is a publicity order?

A publicity order in a case of corporate manslaughter requires the organisation to:

  1. Publicise the fact they have been convicted of corporate manslaughter
  2. Provide the details of the offence
  3. State the amount of the fine imposed
  4. State the terms of any remedial order where relevant

If the court makes a publicity order in a case of corporate manslaughter, they will stipulate where the announcement will be made, such as in the media or on the company’s website.  

Generally, a press announcement will not be deemed necessary if the trial has received significant media coverage, but a publicity order will specify:

  1. The publication (s) where the announcement will appear
  2. The form the announcement will take
  3. The required number of insertions of the announcement  

The prosecution in the case will provide the court with a draft of the proposed order, which the judge will then be required to personally endorse.

For specialist legal advice on cases of corporate manslaughter, get in touch with our experienced team of expert solicitors. Call us on 0333 577 0522 to discuss your case – we will work with you to ensure the best possible outcome based on your individual circumstances.