The new offence - which is laid out in a draft bill already drawn up by the Law Commission, and will carry an unlimited fine - will close the loophole which forced the dropping of charges against Great Western Trains on Friday for its role in the Southall rail crash. The failure to convict the company will accelerate the introduction of the new law which is being prepared by a special interdepartmental Whitehall committee.
Seven people died and 150 were injured in September 1997 when a Swansea to Paddington express sped through a red signal and crashed into a goods train at 125mph. The High Court heard that the train was defective. The automatic warning system alerting the driver that he had passed the signal had been switched off.
But on Friday Mr Justice Scott Baker said that the company could not be convicted of corporate manslaughter unless a particular individual could be shown to have been grossly negligent - and called for a change in the law. Charges against the train driver were also dropped.
The fiasco provides only the latest example of the immunity that the law gives companies involved in fatal accidents to their employees and the public. This made it impossible, for example to convict the owners of the Herald of Free Enterprise which sank at Zeebrugge in 1987 with the loss of 193 lives.
There have been only four prosecutions for corporate man- slaughter and just one conviction: in the Lyme Bay canoeing tragedy of March 1993 in which four children died. The organiser, OLL, was fined pounds 60,000 and its boss, Peter Kite, was jailed for three years.
The new offence, originally proposed by the Law Commission in 1996, will make it possible to convict a company when its conduct has fallen short of what could "reasonably be expected" of it. This broad definition will replace the almost impossible requirement under the present law to prove that the entire attitude of the company is negligent about the risks of endangering life. It is certain to increase the number of both prosecutions and convictions.
Two new offences for individuals - reckless killing and killing through gross carelessness - are also likely to be brought in, but they are not expected to make it easier to convict bosses because of the difficulty of proving negligence through long chains of command.
A special interdepartmental committee of top officials has been examining the new law with the Law Commission since earlier this year and is unanimous on the need for it. It was expecting to recommend the change to ministers over the next week, so that a consultation document could be issued in the autumn.
The last week's events are likely to accelerate the process. Stephen Silber, QC, a law commissioner, told the Independent on Sunday yesterday that a short Bill had already been drawn up and that he hoped that "Parliament would find the time to implement it very shortly".Reuse content