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New sentencing guidelines timed for first corporate manslaughter hearing

27 October 2009

New corporate manslaughter sentencing guidelines should be finalised in time for the hearing in the first case brought against a company for homicide early next year.

Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings is the first business to be prosecuted – alongside its director, Peter Eaton – under the Corporate Manslaughter Act 2007.

The case will be heard in Bristol Crown Court on 23 February 2010, with a one-day pre-trial review scheduled for 5 February. The hearing has been listed for six weeks.

The Crown Prosecution Service brought the case against the company following the death of one of its employees, Alexander Wright, on 5 September 2008.

The 27-year-old junior geologist was taking soil samples from inside a pit which had been excavated as part of a site survey in Stroud, Gloucestershire, when the sides of the pit collapsed crushing him.

Charges were brought against Peter Eaton both under the Corporate Manslaughter Act 2007 and under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

The 2007 Act entered into force in September 2008 and provides for the first time that unlimited fines can be imposed on corporate bodies found guilty of causing death by negligence.

The draft guideline by the Sentencing Guidelines Council emphasises the punitive element of fines that can be imposed on companies, with compensation payable separately to families of the victims.

Deaths caused through gross breaches of care should result in fines “measured in millions of pounds and should seldom be below £500,000”, the draft guideline says.

Health and safety offences will normally attract a fine of over £100,000.

The council also says judges should make publicity orders “in virtually all cases”, requiring organisations to issue statements about their conviction, so that shareholders, customers, and the local community would be made aware of the offence.

Factors increasing the seriousness of the offence include how foreseeable the serious injury was, how common the kind of breach of care is, and how far up the organisation responsibility goes.

Further reasons justifying a high fine would include the number of deaths caused, failure to heed warnings, cost cutting, or deliberate failure to obtain or comply with relevant licences.

The council however rejected the suggestion by the Sentencing Advisory Panel that the level of fines should be relative to a company’s turnover.

“This was not appropriate in view of the different financial structures and circumstances of organisations within the private, public, and third sectors,” said council member and Court of Appeal vice-president Lord Justice Anthony Hughes.

The consultation closes on 5 January 2010, a date which a spokesperson for the SGC said was chosen to ensure that the new guideline would be in place by the time the Cotswold Geotechnical case is heard.

Pleas are yet to be entered in the Cotswold Geotechnical case.

Categorised in:

Procedures ADR Health & Safety