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Tougher corporate manslaughter law despite Barrow verdict...
Tougher corporate manslaughter law despite Barrow verdict

By Mark Smulian

The clearing of Barrow BC of corporate manslaughter will spur the next government to toughen up the law, experts have warned.

Mr Justice Poole, explaining why he directed a crown court jury to clear the council over the 2002 outbreak of legionnaires' disease at its Forum 28 leisure centre, in which seven people died and 172 became ill, cast doubt on whether any council could be convicted of corporate manslaughter as the law stands.

He said it would be difficult to establish anyone was a 'controlling mind' in a council whose 'actions and intent are the actions and intent of the council'.

Councils' activities were so diverse that it was 'far from clear to me, I confess, that even the chief executive officer could properly be described as the controlling mind', he said.

In its manifesto, Labour has pledged to legislate for a new offence of corporate manslaughter, which is expected to enable easier prosecutions of senior officers and councils. To convict a council at present, it is necessary to prove someone is its 'controlling mind' (LGC, 1 April).

Gifty Edila, president of the Association of Council Secretaries & Solicitors and director of law and administration at Kensington & Chelsea LBC, said: 'The government is saying it is looking to make senior managers responsible, and I think has taken the view it is right to look at who has day-to-day control and who was responsible for significant failings, rather than trying to find a 'controlling mind'.

'Obviously the judge's comments will influence the government in looking at corporate manslaughter legislation and encourage them to think they are on the right track.'

Roger Bibbings, occupational safety adviser to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, said the Barrow case would increase pressure for easier prosecutions: 'The judge's comments on the 'controlling mind' support calls from the health and safety community for reform of the law on corporate manslaughter.'

The judge had been unable to give his reasons until the 10-week case against council design services manager Gillian Beckingham ended (LGC, 21 April).

Last week the jury was not able to agree verdicts on the seven counts of manslaughter against her. She faces a retrial.

Both she and the council had each earlier pleaded guilty to one breach of the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974, but sentences were deferred pending the second trial.

At least two other councils - West Sussex CC and North Lincolnshire Council - have faced threats of corporate manslaughter charges, over road accidents (LGC, 25 February).

Reducing the risk of prosecution

In the event of a tougher manslaughter law, the Association of Council Secretaries & Solicitors advises councils to undertake:

>> Thorough risk assessments, backed by the political will to act on any findings

>> Training of staff in health and safety

>> Cultural change to make staff aware of the issues.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents says councils will be able to argue a due diligence defence for any prosecution, and reduce the likelihood of fatalities if they take 'reasonable steps' including:

>> A health and safety management system compliant with the Health & Safety Executive's HSG65 guidance

>> Compliance with health and safety regulations through-out the organisation

>> Risk assessments that are acted on with results reported to stakeholders

>> Competent advisers to train staff and management

>> A monitoring regime and an investigatory regime for failures.

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