First charges brought under Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007

Law scales, the first ever charge of corporate manslaughter brought under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 (the 2007 Act) was due to be heard yesterday in Stroud Magistrates Court. The case got off to a bit of a false start, however, as no pleas were entered and the case was referred to Bristol Crown Court. The preliminary hearing is due to begin on Tuesday 23 June where the court will set the timetable for the case. No plea is likely to be entered on Tuesday, rather, the judge will direct the date on which the prosecution case is to be served, when the defence statement is to be served and when the Plea and Case Management hearing will take place. This is estimated to be sometime in August.

Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings Limited is the company being prosecuted, in relation to the death of one of their employees, Mr Alexander Wright. Mr Wright died on 5 September 2008 whilst taking soil samples from inside a pit which had been excavated as part of a site survey. The sides of the pit collapsed, crushing him to death. Mr Peter Eaton, a director of the company, has been also charged with the common law offence of gross negligence manslaughter, and with a breach of Section 37 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (HWSA). Aside from the corporate offence, the company has also been charged with a failure to discharge its general duties under section 2 of the HWSA, which requires employers to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of employees.

As the first ever prosecution for corporate manslaughter, this will undoubtedly be a landmark case. The company being prosecuted in this instance is however a small, family company where the directors are closely involved with the day-to-day running of the organisation. It is therefore doubtful that this case will provide much in the way of significant insight or understanding on how fines under the 2007 Act will be applied to larger corporations. The reputational damage associated with a conviction for corporate manslaughter is arguably the greatest deterrent to companies, and perhaps the most important aspect of this case will be whether, if convicted, the company is made subject to the “publicity order” provided for in the 2007 Act. A publicity order will require a company to advertise their conviction and the penalty imposed. Of course, with or without a publicity order, there will almost always be a great deal of publicity surrounding any conviction for corporate manslaughter, as can be seen from the press coverage to date of the case against Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings.

We will continue to monitor and report on the progress of this case.

This article first appeared in Law-Now, CMS Cameron McKenna's free online information service, and has been reproduced with their permission. For more information about Law-Now, please go to www.law-now.com.