BBC News: Corporate killing debate goes on: 25 August 2005

 

By Reevel Alderson
BBC Scotland

 
Larkhall explosion
Fire crews pick their way through the Findlays' devastated home
Transco was the first company in Scotland to be charged with corporate killing.

It was originally accused of culpable homicide - the equivalent in England is manslaughter - as well as breaching health and safety laws.

However, following an appeal, the Crown Office dropped the allegations.

In England, directors of the rail network operator, Railtrack and of its contractor, Balfour Beatty, had faced manslaughter charges following the Hatfield crash in October 2000.

Again the charges were dropped, this time after the judge formally directed the jury to acquit the five men. They continued to face charges under the Health and Safety at Work Act.

The Scottish Executive remains committed to introducing a law allowing companies and their directors, to face serious charges.

Expert group

This commitment was part of the Partnership Agreement which established the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition at Holyrood.

Last month, Justice Minister Cathy Jamieson announced the formation of an expert group to review the law on corporate liability for culpable homicide. The group is expected to report in 2006.

If we are not going to treat these serious criminal offences with the full force of criminal law, then we have to ask serious questions about what kind of criminal justice system we have
 
Dave Whyte
Stirling University

The Scottish Law Commission's draft Criminal Code notes: "The existing law on corporate liability is not satisfactory and there is pressure for legislation on the subject."

It argues that corporations as "legal persons" should be liable for a range of criminal offences.

Yet the debate about whether a corporate body can face serious common law charges such as murder or culpable homicide is hardly new.

In 1699, the King's Advocate, George MacKenzie argued that a collective body could indeed commit a crime.

In his "Laws and Customs of Scotland in Matters Criminal," he wrote: "Even those crimes which are ordinarily committed by private men such as murder, oppression etc, are in law sometimes charged upon the Incorporations if these things be done by command of the rulers."

Hatfield train crash
Manslaughter charges in the Hatfield crash case were dropped

Dave Whyte, a lecturer in criminology at Stirling University and a member of the executive's expert panel, said reform was long overdue.

"Very often when people die at work, they die because serious criminal offences have occurred," he said.

"If we are not going to treat these serious criminal offences with the full force of criminal law, then we have to ask serious questions about what kind of criminal justice system we have."

He pointed out that in 2002/3 only 50% of prosecutions for health and safety offences led to convictions in Scotland, compared to 82% in England and 80% in Wales.

Yet a UK-wide MORI poll for the Transport and General Workers' Union in 2003 found 65% of people agreed with the statement: "Workplace safety will only improve if company directors can be prosecuted for a serious criminal offence like manslaughter."

Health and safety

Fines for breaches of health and safety laws are unlimited.

  • The oil giant BP was fined a total of 1m at Falkirk Sheriff Court in January 2002, after two incidents at their Grangemouth refinery in June 2000. It followed a steam rupture and fire

     

  • Shell Expro was fined 900,000 at Aberdeen Sheriff Court in April, 2005 following the deaths of two workers on the Brent Bravo platform in the North Sea in September 2003

     

  • BP had already been prosecuted following the deaths of three men in two separate incidents at the Grangemouth refinery in March 1987. Fines imposed at Falkirk Sheriff Court totalled 750,000.
    It is unfortunate in my view that that case was thrown out of court, but if a loophole exists, I believe we must now plug it
     
    Karen Gillon
    Larkhall MSP

    But the MSP for the Larkhall area, Karen Gillon, said that merely fining companies was insufficient punishment.

    Local people and relatives of those who died in the December, 1999 explosion wanted the directors of Transco to be held to account, and have campaigned for a change in the law.

    "Unfortunately the company haven't been held properly to account for what happened," she said.

    "I do believe they should have been charged with corporate culpable homicide.

    "It is unfortunate in my view that that case was thrown out of court, but if a loophole exists, I believe we must now plug it."

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