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A Guide to Corporate Manslaughter in the UK

Corporate manslaughter can seem like an especially confusing offence because it is a company or organisation that is charged with the offence, which obviously differs from the vast majority of crimes in England and Wales. What does this mean in practice? And if you are an owner or manager of the company, will you be held responsible for the actions of the company? In this guide, we will outline the offence of corporate manslaughter in the UK and explain what you can expect during the criminal process. We will also answer some of the most common questions we get about corporate manslaughter as criminal defence experts.

Can a company be charged for murder in the UK?

Companies cannot be charged with murder, per se, but they can be charged for actions that result in death. The legislation that created this offence is the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007. Since this law was passed, companies and organisations proven to have grossly breached their duty of care due to management failures can be found guilty of the offence of corporate manslaughter.

For the purposes of this offence, an ‘organisation’ means:

  • corporations
  • government departments and other government bodies
  • local and specialist police forces
  • partnerships, trade unions, or employers’ associations that employ workers
  • foreign companies
  • charities and voluntary organisations
  • company subsidiaries and sub-contractors

What type of offence is corporate manslaughter?

Corporate manslaughter is classified as a statutory offence in the UK. This means that it is an offence created by Parliament, and not by common law. The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 sets out the circumstances in which a company or organisation can be found guilty of corporate manslaughter.

Is corporate manslaughter a criminal offence?

Yes, corporate manslaughter is a criminal offence in the UK pursuant to the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007. Note that any crimes charged under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 may also attract charges under various health and safety regulations for workplace activities.

What are the elements of corporate manslaughter?

To be convicted of corporate manslaughter, the prosecution must prove that there has been a gross breach of duty of care by the company or organisation, and that this breach of duty of care resulted in death.

It is important to note that for an organisation to be found guilty of corporate manslaughter, it does not need to be proven that anyone within the organisation acted with criminal intent. The test for guilt is purely objective – whether or not the company’s actions amounted to a gross breach of duty of care.

What must be proved in order for the offence of corporate manslaughter to be satisfied?

According to Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) guidance, the following elements must be proven to succeed in a corporate manslaughter prosecution:

  • the defendant is a qualifying organisation;
  • the organisation owed a relevant duty of care to the deceased;
  • there was a gross breach of that duty by the organisation;
  • the way in which its activities were managed or organised by its senior management was a substantial element in the breach; and
  • the gross breach of the organisation’s duty caused or contributed to the death.

Can an individual be charged with corporate manslaughter?

Yes, an individual can be charged with corporate manslaughter in the UK. The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 makes it possible for senior managers to be prosecuted for the offence if it can be proven that they were personally responsible for the gross breach of duty of care that led to the death.

However, it is important to note that an individual can only be charged with corporate manslaughter if the company or organisation of which they are a part has also been convicted of the offence. An individual cannot be charged with corporate manslaughter if the company or organisation is found not guilty.

How many people are convicted of corporate manslaughter?

The introduction of the offence of corporate manslaughter was a ground-breaking development in the law, but there have not yet been a considerable number of convictions for this offence. Statistics are quite hard to come by on this topic, something that is likely linked to the reputational damage that companies would face in being labelled as ‘killers’. According to a freedom of information request made in 2020, in the years 2008-2016, there were 27 charges of corporate manslaughter in the UK. Out of those, 22 companies either plead guilty or were found guilty by the courts.

What is the difference between gross negligence manslaughter and corporate manslaughter?

There is some overlap between the offences of gross negligence manslaughter and corporate manslaughter, but there are also important differences. Gross negligence manslaughter is an offence that can be committed by an individual, whereas corporate manslaughter is typically committed by a company or organisation.

What is the sentence for gross negligence manslaughter?

If one is convicted of gross negligence manslaughter, the maximum penalty will be life imprisonment, which in real terms means a maximum of 18 years in prison followed by parole. Although other penalties are an option, such as being disqualified from being a director, it is tough to evade a prison sentence.

What is the maximum fine that can be imposed under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act?

The punishment for an organisation convicted of corporate manslaughter depends on the size of the organisation, but since 2016’s new sentencing guidelines, it starts at £180,000. The maximum fine is £20 million. It is up to the judge to decide what level of fine to impose, based on the seriousness of the offence and the size of the company or organisation.

Note that legal costs will also likely be imposed if the company is found guilty. These can be significant, and may even exceed the fine received for the offence.

These fines can lead a company directly into bankruptcy. This is significant not only for the company but for all those who will lose their jobs as a result.

Are there any defences for corporate manslaughter?

Yes, there are a few potential defences to corporate manslaughter. Any defence strategy needs to be discussed in detail with your solicitor, but in general, these include:

  • all reasonably practicable steps to prevent the death from happening were taken by the company or organisation
  • the company or organisation can show that the death was caused by an unforeseeable event
  • adequate systems and processes were put in place by the company or organisation, including those related to health and safety
  • there was only a one-off failure that was caused by an isolated event of mismanagement, not systemic failures (which the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act is meant to address)
  • the breach was no ‘gross’ in so far as other companies act or manage such affairs in a similar way, so it cannot be argued that the company falls below the expected standard
  • the victim was negligent or reckless, and that led to their death, not the mismanagement of the company (note that even if the victim was negligent, the organisation could still be found criminally responsible if the organisation’s failings contributed to the death)

In respect of individuals charged under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act, defences are a little more complicated. The individual may be charged with corporate manslaughter, or they may be charged with gross negligence manslaughter. In the latter case, the organisation itself may be acquitted and instead the individual charged, if the actions that caused the death can be mostly attributed to the individual and there is no indication of systemic failure.

In these cases, an individual may rely on the general defences available to crimes in England and Wales. These include:

  • self-defence
  • consent
  • duress
  • necessity
  • automatism
  • incapacity/insanity

Additionally, it may be possible to raise a defence of lack of causation, if the death was not caused by the breach of duty or gross negligence. This would require expert evidence to show that the death was not linked to the actions of the individual.

Where to get more help with a corporate manslaughter charge?

If you have been charged with corporate manslaughter, it is important to seek legal advice as soon as possible. Corporate manslaughter is a complex offence and the penalties for conviction can be severe for both companies and individuals who own or manage them. Our team of criminal defence experts is here to guide you through the criminal justice system and help you achieve the best possible outcome in your case. We might even be able to get your case dropped before it reaches trial, and critically before it causes any reputational damage to your company. Contact the team at Stuart Miller Solicitors today for a free consultation and we will discuss your case in detail.

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