Lord Williams of Mostyn said that the Court of Appeal would re-examine the law of corporate manslaughter "as soon as possible". Three appeal court judges will deliver a judgment early next year which the Government hopes will make it easier to convict company directors for corporate manslaughter.
Railtrack, responsible for the signalling, and Thames Trains, one of the two train companies involved in the crash on 5 October in which 31 people died, may face any criminal proceedings which arise.
As the law stands prosecutions leading to a realistic prospect of conviction are rare in corporate manslaughter cases because it is difficult to establish a "controlling mind". Using the courts to change the law is quicker than introducing legislation.
Lord Williams, who oversees the work of the Crown Prosecution Service, said: "I think there is a very deep feeling of public unease about this sort of case... There's quite a deep feeling that corporate manslaughter is not effective."
Lord Williams also pointed to the tragedies involving the Marchioness and the Herald of Free Enterprise ferries as examples of the law not working. But it was the collapse of the Southall case, the 1997 rail crash in which seven people died, which has allowed him to act now. In July an Old Bailey judge ordered the acquittal of South Western Trains because the Crown Prosecution Service had not been able to identify an individual as the "controlling mind".
If the Court of Appeal is unable to strengthen the law, Lord Williams said the Government would bring in legislation based on the draft Bill on corporate manslaughter published by the Law Commission.
He said he was particularly keen to see the introduction of "remedial orders" which would force the offending company to act immediately to prevent further danger to the public. Failure to comply with a remedial order would be a criminal offence under the new law.
As a barrister Lord Williams said he had appeared in two cases which were important in setting out the law on manslaughter. He said the courts should now be used to develop the law to keep apace with changes in public opinion.
Meanwhile the families of those killed in the Paddington crash have expressed their fury over a decision to grant legal immunity to evidence presented to the crash inquiry.
While this will not block criminal prosecutions, material presented to the hearing cannot be used as evidence.
Robin Kellow, whose 24-year-old daughter Elaine was one of the victims, said: "There is no way an indemnity should be granted. If anyone has any information, it is up to the lawyers to get it out of them and use it for criminal prosecutions."
An inquiry spokesman acknowledged there were conflicting opinions on the issue. However its chairman Lord Cullen asked for the ruling so that the hearing will not be delayed by criminal proceedings.
n The signal at the centre of the inquiry into the Paddington crash is likely to remain out of action for some time. Railtrack said yesterday it was not intending to bring signal 109 back into service until full crash investigations were concluded.Reuse content