The Hatfield defendants were innocent, and would have been under a reformed law. If you want a villain in this piece, look at past and present governments

Following the conclusion of the Hatfield trial the question on everyone’s lips is whether it will overcome the government’s inertia in getting a new corporate manslaughter law onto the statute books. A draft bill was published in March of this year for consultation concluding in June.

It may be tempting to seek to draw conclusions from the result of a case in which manslaughter charges, and corporate manslaughter charges in particular, have again failed to stick. But this was, in truth, an over-charged, overambitious prosecution. Manslaughter charges should never have been brought against these companies or individuals. It was, as one defence counsel told the jury, an “overblown and over-hyped case without real substance”. As the judge said in his dismissal judgment at the close of the prosecution case, the conduct of these individuals did not reach the threshold of gross negligence.

Moreover, the jury, having heard more than 70 days of evidence and having considered their verdicts for 15 hours, found no breach of duty on the human defendants’ part at all. They convicted Network Rail of breaching health and safety law, and Balfour Beatty had pleaded guilty to this charge earlier in the trial.

Of course, it is understandable that yet another failure in corporate accountability should lead to renewed calls for reform. The judge himself referred to the vexed question of reform in his ruling on the dismissal of the manslaughter charges, when he said: “This case continues to underline the pressing need for the long-delayed reform of the law in this area of unlawful killing.”

But it does not follow that because this prosecution failed, the current law failed to deliver justice. This prosecution would have failed whether or not a reformed law had been introduced.

One of the fundamental difficulties with the current law is that an individual who can be said to be a “directing mind” or the “embodiment” of the company must be convicted of manslaughter before the company can be. This senior figure must have been personally responsible for a grossly negligent act or omission that results in death. Inevitably, the larger a company the more complex the management, and the more difficult it is to identify a directing mind. Of the 34 manslaughter prosecutions for causing deaths in the workplace brought since 1992, only seven small firms have been convicted. A major corporate defendant is yet to be found guilty, leading to concern that the law is unable to hold large organisations to account.

This was, in truth, an over-charged, overambitious prosecution. Manslaughter charges should never have been brought against these individuals

The new offence is less demanding in its requirements. Under the proposed law, for an organisation to be convicted of corporate manslaughter “senior managers” must be identified who have organised or managed a company’s activities in such a way as to have caused a person’s death and in a way that amounts to a gross breach of their duty of care towards the deceased. According to the consultation document, this principle is intended better to reflect the complexities of management within large organisations. However, the definition of senior manager is not without its problems – for instance there is the requirement that a senior manager’s role must extend to the whole or a substantial part of the organisation.

We do not believe that the proposed law would have made any difference at all in the Hatfield case. That is because, as one of the defence counsel put it, the context of this prosecution was of five professional men working in an under-funded, under-invested railway system, neglected by governments of all parties for more than 40 years, which had undergone a botched and unworkable privatisation; it was a railway system that the defendants had tried to make work for the benefit of the travelling public against overwhelming odds.

He went on to say that it was a sad reflection on political correctness and the blame culture of modern day Britain that five men at modest job levels were blamed for Hatfield, and that the concerned and grieving relatives and the press and the public were spun the line that the buck stopped with them. We agree. A reformed law would have changed nothing as far as this case was concerned. It is essential not to look for convenient scapegoats but to make a reasoned, careful and impartial analysis of the genuine underlying causes of a tragedy such as this.

The law should not be reformed because of Hatfield. The Hatfield verdicts were correct. Of course Hatfield was a tragedy. But the proposed change in the law would not have changed the result in this case. The public should not be seduced into thinking it would. The causes of this tragedy were far more complex.