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Tuesday, 23 May, 2000, 07:48 GMT 08:48 UK
Calling companies to account
Herald of Free Enterprise
Zeebrugge: 187 died but no manslaughter conviction
New laws aimed at bringing to account company bosses responsible for deaths are being tabled by Home Secretary Jack Straw.

The proposals come amid growing unease that executives are escaping charges over major accidents.

Earlier this month, survivors of the Paddington rail disaster criticised the decision not to prosecute anyone for manslaughter over the crash which killed 31 people.

Their demand for a change to the law in England and Wales came after the Crown Prosecution Service said there was "insufficient evidence" to provide a realistic prospect of conviction.

The Director of Public Prosecutions, David Calvert-Smith, joined their call for a new offence of corporate killing, saying: "At the moment, the law is, in our view, insufficient to deal with what is culpable conduct."

The difficulty in bringing corporate manslaughter charges has long been recognised. Such prosecutions following the 1987 Zeebrugge ferry disaster- in which 187 people died - and the 1997 Southall rail disaster - in which seven died - both failed.

Successful prosecutions

So far, there have been only two successful prosecutions for corporate manslaughter. 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.
Lyme Bay accident
Managing director jailed after Lyme Bay canoe tragedy

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.

As long ago as 1996, the Law Commission - which advises 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 in which 35 people were killed and almost 500 injured.

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".

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

Andrew Dismore MP
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 because of identifying the people who were the "embodiment" of the company.


The Commission said that 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."
Southall crash
Southall rail crash: Failed prosecution

The Home Office has confirmed it is planning to introduce a new offence of corporate killing and said its long-awaited consultation paper would be published "shortly".

The Labour MP, Andrew Dismore - a former personal injuries lawyer - has already introduced a Corporate Homicide Bill in the Commons.

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

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

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11 Jan 00 | London train crash
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