Gary Slapper: Workers are dying for a new law

A welder named Glanville Evans was killed when the bridge he was working on collapsed and he fell into the River Wye. The firm that employed him had been reckless in instructing the 27-year-old to work in a perilous way but an attempt to convict it for manslaughter failed.

Christopher Shute, 30, was killed when he fell into a vat of hot paint and drowned while working in unsafe conditions at the Ford factory in Southampton. The company was fined for what the judge called an "entirely unnecessary" death but it was not prosecuted for manslaughter.

The first case was in February 1965. The second was in June 2003. Between the two cases, more than 35,000 people have been killed at work - yet only five companies have ever been convicted of manslaughter. My research suggests 20 per cent of all deaths at work are prosecutable as manslaughter cases. There are about 450 work-related fatal incidents every year - so about 90 cases of corporate manslaughter silently slip away, unlabelled, each year.

No wonder those bereaved by the commercial sacrifice of their loved ones speak of the deep disgust they feel with the legal system for having failed to deliver justice.

Few people realise that a staggering one million laws govern us in the UK today. At the centre of all these, of course, are laws about killing people.

Today, debate about whether there should be an offence of corporate manslaughter has been raised by two coincidental developments. In May, the Government announced draft legislation to introduce an offence of "corporate killing". Then, last month, corporate manslaughter prosecutions were begun under existing law against two large companies in respect of the people who were killed in the Hatfield train crash on 17 October 2000.

There are 1.6 million companies in England and Wales. Most are law-abiding - like most citizens. Among companies, though, there are delinquents whose apparent contempt for people is equal to that shown by the individual criminal. If we afford leniency to the grand and powerful, we insult the intelligence of the population that is told "all are equal under the law".

When companies behave badly, the suffering is on a different scale from the hurt caused by individuals. When a company commits a big pension fraud, it is like a burglar with 10,000 victims, who have lost their entire retirement savings, not just a video recorder. You might think once we decide a particular type of conduct is against the law, like recklessly killing people, the worse the incident, the more likely it will result in a conviction. You would be wrong.

The costs of corporate crime are huge when compared with those of "ordinary" crime, but it is ordinary crime that absorbs most of our policing and prosecution resources. When a reckless workman illegally dumps asbestos waste, he might endanger local residents, but when a company continues to expose thousands of people to the lethal dust over decades the harm is on a different scale. The company, though, is less likely than the workman to be prosecuted.

In similar vein, more than one million cases of theft are recorded by the police each year but in 70 per cent of cases the theft is for an amount under £50. By contrast, one case of corporate swindling can outstrip the sum total of thefts - the BCCI case tried at the Old Bailey in 1997 included charges of fraud totalling £750m.

The list of anomalies goes on. Graffiti and train seat vandalism pale into insignificance compared with the amount of damage caused by people illegally pouring toxic material into rivers. And while 20,000 people a year are seriously wounded in fights, 30,000 are seriously injured at work.

Establishing the exact scale of corporate crime is very difficult. Part of the problem has been gaining evidence, not just in respect of particular cases, but also to assist in charting the nature of corporate crime. A Bureau of Corporations set up by Theodore Roosevelt in America in 1903 to investigate firms was quickly disbanded because of the need to obtain election funds from some of the largest corporations.

For the early part of its history, the company lay outside criminal law. "It had no soul to damn, and no body to kick," said 18th-century Lord Chancellor Lord Thurlow. The main difficulty in using the current law of manslaughter to proceed against corporations is that the rules evolved to reflect individuals. They are concerned with evaluating the "state of mind" of the defendant, and companies do not have easily identifiable "minds".

Under current law, the courts must look at the conduct of senior officers taken to personify the company. But there must be at least one fully culpable officer - a company will be acquitted if, through a diffuse management or chaos, various directors each knew only a piece of the full picture.

Under recently proposed legislation, a company would become liable for prosecution for "corporate killing" if a "management failure" by the corporation resulted in death, and the failure constituted conduct falling "far below what can reasonably be expected of the corporation in the circumstances". The corporation would therefore be judged simply by the results of its collective efforts.

However the law might be redesigned, one very important breakthrough has already been made. The greater public has recognised, and decided it will not tolerate, criminal corporate conduct.

Gary Slapper is Professor of Law at the Open University. He was recently invited to give evidence by the House of Commons committee examining this issue. His book 'Blood in the Bank' is published by Ashgate (available for £28 if you ring 01235 827730 and quote 30FL1597)

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