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New Legislation makes Directors sit up and take notice

Health and safety legal advice


June 17th this year is the official deadline for comments on Government plans to introduce ground-breaking legislation. The proposed laws will enable company directors to be prosecuted for manslaughter due to corporate negligence.

Despite vocal and extensive criticism from industry and legal professionals alike, it is likely that a bill will be put before the House by the end of this year, barring exceptional responses from the consultation process. A new law on corporate manslaughter could therefore be in force within the next two years.

Outcry against the draft legislation has centred around the fact that it would be extremely difficult to pin the blame of a company's negligence on a single person, particularly at board level.

There would also be a danger of turning an industry into a scapegoat as well as the whole proceedings turning into a legal farce, with lawyers advising parties to say nothing to avoid implication. You only have to look at the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise as an example - this led to lengthy recriminations over who was responsible.

The Government has said that the legislation will be targeted at companies and that criminal liability of individual directors will not be part of the proposed legislation.

However, there is one key legal point that the Government and industry at large appears to have forgotten. That is the fact that a law to prosecute individual directors for a company's negligent actions already exists.

Both companies and individuals can already be prosecuted under health and safety laws if their negligence causes a death. Importantly, the law does not limit the extent of the fine.

And there is plenty of scope for this law to be invoked, there are still high numbers of employees and members of the general public - running into hundreds - that are killed each year in industrial accidents.

Where the new corporate negligence laws are concerned, the Government has given assurance to directors concerned about the financial and harassment aspects which the proposed legislation could give rise to. The message is that conscientious companies will have nothing to fear.

This, of course, is sound advice. But even the most conscientious business can make mistakes, sometimes with far-reaching consequences. With the Government giving even greater focus to this area of the law, it is absolutely crucial to take health and safety responsibilities as seriously as you possibly can.

Take a good, long look at your business and its operations and take the requisite action in any area at all in which you think you may be weak. If you need advice, then ask!

The last thing you want is for your company - and yourself - to have to take the blame for an accident that could have been avoided.

Fergal Dowling is head of employment law at the Birmingham office of national law firm Irwin Mitchell.