Monday 21 January 2008

Corporate homicide and individual liability

Last Friday, there were further newspaper reports about pressure for corporate homicide legislation to provide for company directors to be held personally responsible for workplace deaths – something which is not provided for by the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007. From the Herald:

“Grahame Smith, general secretary of the Scottish TUC, said there was "deep disappointment" the UK legislation would not hold individual managers to account. Labour MSP Karen Gillon introduced her own members' bill on corporate killing, but withdrew it after the UK Government brought forward its own plans. But she said she was prepared to reintroduce it after the £400,000 fines handed down to ICL Plastics and ICL Tech in the case of the Stockline factory explosion which killed 33 people.”

If the view taken prior to the 2007 Act – that the matter was a reserved one and so the Scottish Parliament had no power to legislate – is correct, then it is difficult to see how Ms Gillon’s bill being reintroduced could affect matters (unless, of course, the fact that we now have an SNP administration in some way affects the official view on which matters are reserved and which are devolved).

On the issue of principle, the reference to Stockline is particularly significant, although it is not new. Families Against Corporate Killing, whose campaign seems to have prompted the most recent reports, issued a statement last September, again invoking Stockline and asserting “the urgency of implementing strong deterrent legislation in order to save lives”.

It is strange to see Stockline repeatedly prayed in aid of the case for individual liability, because it demonstrates the weakness of the deterrent argument. The chief executive and another director of the company died in the blast. News reports at the time indicated that another director had been seriously injured and that the son of a fourth was pulled from the factory by firefighters. (See this Scotsman report.)

There may be good reasons for imposing criminal penalties on individual directors following workplace fatalities. But the case for individual liability which is being made at present seems to rest on the notion that if such cases were to result in severe consequences being visited on company directors, then such incidents would be prevented by “deterrence”. It relies on a particular stereotype of such cases, in which companies are neatly divided between employees (who take all the risk) and directors (who take none). Real life is sometimes rather more complex, and the Stockline tragedy demonstrates that quite clearly.

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