Alison Shepherd, partner with Crutes Law Firm, who acted on behalf of Barrow BC in the case, said that although Mr Justice Poole directed the jury to find Barrow BC not guilty, the judgement would not rule out the possibility of other local authorities being prosecuted for corporate manslaughter.
'Local authorities can take some comfort however from his comments that he could see considerable difficulties in contemplating a prosecution of a local authority and that it was unclear to him whether even a chief executive could be described as a controlling mind of a council of elected members'.
Ms Shepherd added: 'Local authorities need to look closely at this judgement to see what the potential future implications are for them. The prosecution of Barrow BC has been a real wake up call for local authorities and their liabilities in this area of law. I believe that it is only a matter of time before another local authority is charged in this way and the outcome of any future cases could be quite different, particularly if there are any changes to the law to substitute senior management failings for the current identification principle which is proposed by the Corporate Manslaughter Bill*'.
It is impossible for a local authority or a private company to be convicted of corporate manslaughter unless there is a clearly identified 'controlling mind' acting as the embodiment of the council. This principle may be subject to significant change if the Corporate Manslaughter Bill is enacted in its current form, making the possibilities of prosecutions against local authorities far greater.
Barrow BC successfully argued that Gillian Beckingham could not be classed as a controlling mind as she was not senior enough within the organisation, did not play a role in formulating policy, was frequently reporting to superior colleagues and had a line manager supervising her work.
The details of the judgement, which was given on 11 March, have only been released now that the case against Gillian Beckingham has finished in her being found guilty of a breach of Section 7 of the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act. The jury were unable to reach a verdict on the seven counts of manslaughter.
The case against Barrow BC and its employee Gillian Beckingham was brought following an outbreak of legionnaires' disease in July 2002, during which seven people were killed. The outbreak occurred in the cooling towers of the council-owned Forum 28 arts centre in the town.
This case saw Barrow BC become the first local authority in the UK to be tried for corporate manslaughter, but the case against it was thrown out by the judge after he ruled that no reasonable jury could conclude that Ms Beckingham was Barrow BC's controlling mind.
Before the commencement of the trial on the corporate manslaughter charge, Barrow BC had already admitted guilt regarding a breach of Section 3 of the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act. The punishment for this breach is an unlimited fine. This is the same punishment that would have been applicable if Barrow BC been found guilty of the corporate manslaughter charges.
Crutes Law Firm is a national specialist in the insurance litigation arena. Alison Shepherd is head of the Health Safety and Regulatory Unit.
*The Corporate Manslaughter Bill began its legislative proceedings in March of this year.
In its chapter 3 of its 2005 election manifesto, the Labour Party says:
'Following consultation on the draft Bill we have published, we will legislate for a new offence of corporate manslaughter.'