On Wednesday, the first prosecution under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 resulted in the conviction of Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings, following a three week trial at Winchester Crown Court.
The prosecution followed the death of Alexander Wright, a geologist employed by Cotswold, in September 2008, whilst he had been taking soil samples for a housing development in an unsupported pit, which collapsed.
Yesterday, Cotswold were fined £385,000 by the trial judge, Mr Justice Field. Curiously, the company has been allowed ten years to pay the fine (at £38,500 a year) due to the company's "parlous financial state".
Interestingly, the court chose not to utilise any of the additional penalties open to it under the 2007 Act. The Act allows a court to make a remedial order requiring the company to take specified steps to remedy (i) the breach; (ii) any matter that appears to the court to have resulted from the relevant breach and to have been a cause of the death; and (iii) any deficiency, as regards health and safety matters, in the company's policies, systems or practices of which the breach appears to the court to be an indication.
It was also open to the court to make a publicity order, however, the extent of the media coverage was such that nothing would have been gained by such an order.
The offence of corporate manslaughter (in Scotland, corporate homicide) is committed where the way in which a company's activities are managed or organised causes a person's death, and amounts to what the 2007 Act describes as a gross breach of a relevant duty of care owed by the company to the deceased.
The offence is only committed if the way in which the company's activities are managed or organised by its senior management is a substantial element in the breach; a “gross” breach is where the conduct alleged to amount to a breach of the duty falls far below what can reasonably be expected of the organisation in the circumstances.
Cotswold are a small company. One of the drivers behind the 2007 Act was the difficulties that existed in both Scotland and England in prosecuting large organisations at common law for manslaughter or culpable homicide. The first prosecution of a large organisation under the 2007 Act is awaited, however, the prosecuting authorities will no doubt be encouraged that a jury has been persuaded to convict.