Consultation opens for stricter corporate manslaughter penalties

United Kingdom

The Sentencing Council has opened consultation to review the sentencing guidelines for corporate manslaughter and other health and safety offences. This is the result of increasing dissatisfaction with the lack of comprehensive guidance regarding sentencing when it comes to fatal health and safety offences and corporate manslaughter.

The Council proposes to create a more consistent approach to sentencing for both fatal health and safety offences and corporate manslaughter, given their close interplay. Accordingly, large organisations committing corporate manslaughter could face tougher fines of up to £20 million in England and Wales. Fatal health and safety offences could also carry fines of up to £10 million. Notably, the Council has no legislative powers, so guidelines must fit within current legal limits.

In 2013/14, there were 133 cases of fatal injuries at work while 70 members of the public were injured in work-related accidents. There has been criticism for the low level of convictions secured under the Corporate Manslaughter Act 2007 since its inception in 2007. In addition, the fines imposed have also been relatively minor up to now. This is because the level of fines will always be, to some extent, dependent upon a company’s financial means, the size of the business and their capacity to pay a fine due to other factors (e.g. being in administration). It is for such reasons that the courts have imposed relatively low fines in the past. In the future, however, it is hoped that fine levels would be large enough to make an economic impact on an organisation to stress the importance of operating in a safe environment.

The Council proposes that, from now on, starting points and ranges for fines should be set out in guidelines, taking into consideration the offenders means and the seriousness of the offence to ensure: "proportionate sentences." Current guidelines are too vague by not setting upper limits for fines or starting points based on the size of the company involved, which results in organisations being under penalised. While these guidelines only apply to England and Wales, it is likely that Scottish judges will pay close attention to the guidance being set.

Michael Caplan QC, a member of the Sentencing Council, commented:

“We want to ensure that these crimes don’t pay. They can have extremely serious consequences, and businesses that put people at risk by flouting their responsibilities are undercutting those that play by the rules and do their best to keep people safe…Our proposals will help ensure a consistent approach to sentencing, allowing fair and proportionate sentences across the board, with some of the most serious offenders facing tougher penalties. We want to make sure it is clear that it will be cheaper to comply with the law than break it. This is a consultation: we want people to give us their views on our proposals so sentencing in this area is fair, effective and proportionate.”

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