On Tuesday 15 February 2011 Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings Ltd became the first company to be prosecuted and convicted of corporate manslaughter under The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007. The case was brought following the death of Alexander Wright on 5 September 2008 who was killed while collecting soil samples in a trench which collapsed on him.

On Thursday 17 February the company was sentenced. It was ordered to pay a fine of £385,000 but allowed 10 years within which to pay it having regard to the company’s limited means. The judge, Mr Justice Field, commented in the course of sentencing remarks that the fine might put the company into liquidation, going on to say, “If that is the case it’s unfortunate but unavoidable. But it’s a consequence of the serious breach”. Both the level of the fine and this remark are consistent with guidance issued last year by the Sentencing Guidelines Council. This recommended a starting point of around £500,000 for convictions for corporate manslaughter. As to the effect on the company of a fine the guidance stated, “whether the fine will have the effect of putting the defendant out of business will be relevant; in some bad cases this may be an acceptable consequence.”

The significance of the case lies as much in what it represents as what it achieved. Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings Ltd was a small company effectively under the control of a single director. The breaches of safe practice were stark. Given the virtual indivisibility as between company and controlling mind and the significant failings that were revealed the jury had little difficulty in reaching a decision returning a guilty verdict within 2 hours. Nonetheless, the case demonstrates that the Act can provide a framework within which prosecutions can succeed. To this extent the case represents an end to the frustrations long felt at the inability of English law to target companies whose negligence results in death. This dates back at least as far as the failure of the prosecution of P&O following the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster.

The CPS stated in its press release that it “is currently considering a number of other files of evidence in relation to further possible prosecutions for the offence.” However, questions remain about the ability of both investigators and prosecutors to bring a case against a larger company in more complex circumstances. Moreover, despite the signalled intent, there are believed to be no other cases currently where companies have been charged under the Act. We will therefore have to wait to learn whether this case really does mark a new dawn for corporate accountability.