Proposals make it easier to convict large clients, contractors and architects for gross negligence

Public sector clients could face charges of corporate manslaughter under proposals unveiled by the government last week.

The corporate manslaughter bill, published by the Home Office last Friday, would enable the authorities to hold public sector clients accountable for gross negligence on health and safety for the first time.

The bill will also make it easier to convict construction firms and architects for corporate manslaughter offences in relation to fatalities (see below).

Lawrence Waterman, head of safety at the Olympic Delivery Authority said: “For many public bodies, including the ODA, it will be a reason to review heath and safety. But this won’t make any difference to the efforts we were already putting in, and it would be worrying for any client if this had to result in radical change.”

The Construction Confederation praised the proposed legislation, saying it would lead to public sector clients taking more responsibility for health and safety. Shelley Atkinson-Frost, health and safety director, said: “Public sector bodies count for about 40% of procurement, and although some of these would argue they could have been found culpable under existing measures, this will act as a strong checking mechanism.”

Atkinson-Frost urged caution over the bill’s implementation. She said: “The bill focuses on joint responsibility not individuals. The majority of firms don’t have anything to worry about, but we would urge the HSE and government of the need to be proportionate in implementing the legislation.”

The bill is likely to increase the number of prosecutions of large organisations because it removes the need to find a single director guilty of gross negligence in order to convict, instead focusing on the combined failings of senior managers. Since 1992 there have only been six corporate manslaughter prosecutions, all of which were small firms, because in larger companies it is often hard to pinpoint an individual responsible for health and safety. This difficulty is seen as the key reason corporate manslaughter charges failed against Balfour Beatty in relation to the Hatfield crash (see below).

Legal experts are warning the industry to review its health and safety procedures. Paul Burnley, head of DLA Piper’s corporate defence team said: “There is bound to be an increase in cases. The damage a corporate manslaughter conviction would cause an organisation’s reputation is immense.”

The bill will have its first reading in October. Lawyers have warned that the definition of a “senior manager” may require clarification during the process, and unions have said they will continue to lobby for individual director culpability.

Key points of the bill

  • Creates a specific criminal offence of corporate manslaughter (corporate homicide in Scotland)
  • Removes need to identify a senior individual behind a health and safety breach before a prosecution
  • Failings across senior management in relation to CDM and health and safety legislation can be accumulated to find a company guilty of gross negligence and corporate manslaughter
  • Crown immunity for public sector bodies to be lifted in most cases
  • Companies and clients to face unlimited fines if guilty