Magazine article Public Finance

The Buck Stops Where?

Magazine article Public Finance

The Buck Stops Where?

Article excerpt

In late March, the government published a draft Bill for reform of the law on corporate manslaughter. The impending election and the dissolution of Parliament means the Bill has not yet reached the starting blocks. However, if the current government is returned, it will certainly reappear, with the final consultation having been completed and a clear path ahead.

The risk of public bodies being charged with the present criminal offence of corporate manslaughter has been highlighted by the recent case brought against Barrow-inFurness Borough Council. This is the first case against a local authority for this serious criminal offence, and the final ruling is awaited as the trial continues in relation to other matters. But the judge has already directed that the council itself should be acguitted of the principal charge.

The prosecution case against Barrow as an organisation was understood to be based on the council's design services manager being the 'controlling mind' of the authority, and therefore creating a situation where the council itself was implicated by her alleged actions.

The case against her is not concluded and she continues to deny any personal liability. The facts of the case relate to an outbreak of legionnaires' disease allegedly caused by inadequate cleaning of the air conditioning at the authority's arts centre, resulting in seven deaths.

The current law of corporate manslaughter has existed for many years and has been marked by a failure to secure any conviction against a corporate entity in any of the large and well-known cases (such as the Zeebrugge ferry, Marchioness riverboat and Paddington rail disasters).

The public clamour for organisations to be responsible for fatalities and so to atone for their actions is such that the government has long been committed to a change in the law.

In 1996, a royal commission recommended that a new statutory offence of 'corporate killing' should be introduced. It concluded that the lack of convictions was due in part to the difficult burden of proof required, namely that there must be an individual so closely identified with the making of key decisions that led to the fatality (the so-called 'controlling mind') as to implicate the organisation as a whole.

The royal commission therefore recommended a change in the law by the introduction of a new offence with a different test - one of 'serious management failure'.

The new Bill has, instead, proposed to reform the law by replacing the current legislation with a new offence of corporate manslaughter. …

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