Sunday, 18 June 2017

Criminal liability of corporations

The Grenfell Tower fire on 14th June is under investigation by the Metropolitan Police.  Mr David Lammy MP called for charges of corporate manslaughter to be brought - see The Guardian 15th June.  Here is a brief look at the relevant law.

Corporations such as limited companies are, in law, legal entities distinct from the individuals who direct them or are employed by them.  The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 introduced a statutory offence of corporate manslaughter and abolished the common law liability of corporations for manslaughter.

The offence is defined in section 1 and certain types of organisation may be found guilty of the offence.  The offence is concerned with the way in which the activities of an organisation (e.g. company) are managed or organised.  It has to be shown that this caused a person's death and amounted to gross breach of a relevant duty of care owed by the organisation to the deceased.

The term "organisation" is defined in section 1 of the Act and includes (a) a corporation (e.g. a limited company), (b) a department or body listed in Schedule 1, (c) a police force; (d) a partnership, or a trade union or employer's association, that is an employer.  Sometimes it will be necessary to refer to other legislation to ascertain whether there is a corporation and, if so, exactly what it is.  For instance, the Greater London Authority is stated to be a "body corporate" by the Greater London Act 1999.  The Authority is defined as the Mayor of London and the Assembly.

Relevant duty of care is defined in section 2.  The legislation specifically includes a duty owed in connection with the supply by the organisation of goods or services; the carrying on by the organisation of any construction or maintenance operations and the carrying on by the organisation of any other activity on a commercial basis.  Whether a particular organisation owes a duty of care to a particular individual is a question of law and the judge (not jury) must make any findings of fact necessary to decide that question.

Upon conviction, the court can impose a fine on the organisation.  There is also the possibility that, in appropriate cases, the court will make a "remedial order".  The court also has power to order the fact of conviction and various details to be published.  There is no power under this Act to imprison or fine individuals such as company directors or other senior management but individuals continue to be subject to the usual criminal law.

See the Crown Prosecution Service webpages on the Act.

Calling for prosecutions is an understandable reaction to a tragic event but investigation into this matter is likely to take a considerable time and, as this analysis by The Guardian (16th June) shows, it will be complex due to the chain of companies and others involved in the refurbishing of Grenfell Tower.  In these circumstances, it is far too early to make any specific accusations or to draw any conclusions regarding possible prosecutions under this difficult legislation.  Decisions to prosecute are taken by the Crown Prosecution Service applying its usual test for bringing a prosecution and the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions is required.