Firms warned of tough new regime for health and safety breaches causing death


A North West law firm is urging engineering firms to review their health and safety polices after tough new sentencing guidelines for corporate manslaughter offences came into force.

Mace & Jones dispute resolution specialist Ken Salmon said under the new rules set out by the Sentencing Guidelines Council (SGC), businesses convicted of the criminal offence of corporate manslaughter can be fined millions of pounds with a £500,000 minimum. For other health and safety offences that cause death, fines from £100,000 up to hundreds of thousands of pounds could be imposed.

Salmon urged companies to lock down on their health and safety policies as well as ensuring all staff are fully aware of the potentially ruinous effect, conviction may have for the business: "Directors can be left in no doubt that the range of penalties for health and safety breaches causing death are now very tough indeed," he said. "This is a clear statement of intent from the SGC which is reacting to a groundswell of opinion that punishments for corporate manslaughter offences have been too lenient. In addition there is also the threat of up to two years in prison for individual directors, managers or employees convicted of serious health and safety breaches. The message is very much review your policies and critically ensure they are rigorously and consistently enforced. And the drive to enforce it must come from the very top of the organisation."

Salmon said the SGC has made it clear when deciding on fines that judges should not be influenced by the impact on shareholders and directors, but should consider the potential effects of innocent employees and the effect the fine may have on the provision of services to the public: "There are mitigating factors that the court must weigh up in terms of how serious the offence is and the overall size and financial status of the defendant company will still have to be considered," he said. "But fines will be increased where there is evidence that the business could have foreseen the accident and where breaches of rules were widespread in the organisation."

Salmon said in addition to financial penalties, publicity orders are likely to be appropriate in most cases as part of the punishment. The order will specify the place where the public announcement will be made and consider the size and prominence of the notice or advertisement. The organisation may also be compelled to make a statement on relevant websites, ensuring that the information is brought to the attention of shareholders and members of the public.

The implementation of the new guidelines will soon come under the spotlight with the first corporate manslaughter prosecution against Cotswold Geotechnical Limited already underway.

Corporate Manslaughter was introduced as a specific criminal offence in the Corporate Manslaughter Act 2007, which became law in 2008. The new sentencing guidelines apply from 15 February 2010.