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Monday, 22 January, 2001, 12:56 GMT
Putting directors in the dock
Flowers at scene of crash
Will anyone be prosecuted for the Hatfield crash?
Staff linked to the Hatfield rail crash, in which four people died, could be prosecuted for corporate manslaughter. But it is a notoriously difficult charge to prove.

If charges of corporate manslaughter are brought in the case of the Hatfield rail crash it will be only the sixth time such a case has come before a court.

Corporate manslaughter, which seeks to make company employees criminally culpable for serious wrongdoing, is notoriously difficult to prove.

There have been only two successful prosecutions.

Zeebrugge: Herald of Free Enterprise
Charges failed following the Zeebrugge disaster
The first involved OLL, the activity centre responsible for the deaths of four schoolchildren in a canoeing disaster in Lyme Bay, Dorset. Its managing director was jailed for three years in 1994.

In the second case, the managing director of Jackson Transport (Ossett) Ltd was sent to prison for a year in 1996 following the death of an employee who inhaled chemicals.

Other cases, such as those following the 1987 Zeebrugge ferry disaster - in which 187 people died - and the 1997 Southall rail disaster - in which seven died - have failed.

For the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), the main stumbling block in bringing charges against directors of a company is that direct responsibility must be shown.

Series of disasters

As long ago as 1996, the Law Commission - advisor to the government on law reform - called for changes to the law after a series of disasters.

These included the Kings Cross underground fire, in which 31 people died, and the Clapham rail crash, which claimed the lives of 35 people.

Lyme Bay canoes
The Lyme Bay disaster led to one of only two successful prosecutions
Although inquiries criticised both London Underground and British Rail, the commission found the lack of any conviction was probably due to "the difficulty of mounting a manslaughter prosecution against a large-scale corporate defendant".

It said in order to convict a company, individual defendants who could be identified with the firm would themselves have to be guilty of manslaughter.

The problem, it said, arose through trying to identify the people who were the "embodiment" of the company.

The commission said if, for example, development of safety monitoring was not the responsibility of a particular group or individual within a company, then "it becomes almost impossible to identify the 'directing mind' for whose shortcomings the company was liable".

Last year the government set out plans to tighten up the law in this area, in order to make prosecutions easier.

Paddington precedent

The move came after a controversial decision not to prosecute anyone for manslaughter following the Paddington rail disaster in which 31 people died in October 1999.

Explaining its decision not to bring criminal charges, the CPS said there was "insufficient evidence" to provide a realistic prospect of conviction.

David Calvert-Smith
Supporter of change: David Calvert-Smith
The director of public prosecutions, David Calvert-Smith, joined survivors of the crash in calling for a new offence of corporate killing.

"At the moment, the law is, in our view, insufficient to deal with what is culpable conduct," said Mr Calvert-Smith.

Under the government's proposals, a new test of liability would be the failure of the company to do everything practicable to prevent accidents.

But the plans were delayed by consultation and did not make it onto the legislative agenda for the current parliament.

The Labour MP, Andrew Dismore, a former personal injuries lawyer, is a strong supporter of reforming the law and has already introduced a Corporate Homicide Bill in the House of Commons.

The fact that there had been only two convictions exposed "the absurdity of the law of corporate manslaughter as it presently stands," he has said.

"The bigger the company, the less chance of a successful prosecution."

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