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Corporate Manslaughter… What does it mean and how is it investigated?

As news broke last week that the Metropolitan Police have grounds for suspecting that corporate manslaughter may have been committed by organisations connected with the Grenfell Tower tragedy there will be many that will be asking what that actually means and in what circumstances such charges can be brought…

The statutory offence is contained in Section 1 of the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 and states that an organisation can be guilty of an offence if the way in which its activities are managed or organised cause the death of a person and amounts to a gross breach of a relevant duty owed by the organisation to the deceased.

Prior to this section coming into force, as it did on 6 April 2008, it was possible for a company or organisation to be prosecuted for a number of criminal offences however it was also necessary for a senior official also to be guilty of the offence. Under the new act, this is no longer required however the elements constituting the new offence are far from straightforward…

The Act states that the offence applies to corporations, which includes limited companies such as the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, a private limited company incorporated in April 1995 and it applies equally to Local Authorities.

At this stage, the Metropolitan Police have written to former residents of Grenfell Tower to confirm that they have ‘reasonable grounds’ to suspect that the council and management organisation may have committed the offence. This is likely to result in a wave of formal and voluntary interviews of senior officials of both the Local Authority and management organisation, who are expected to provide their full cooperation – in any event the Act does not confer on the Police a power to arrest an individual in connection with the investigation.

If charges are pursued, in order for either organisation to be found guilty the following elements will have to be made out:

  1. The organisation caused a person’s death
  2. There was a relevant duty of care owed by the organisation to the deceased
  3. There was a gross breach of that duty – this means the breach must fall far below what could reasonably be expected of the organisation in the circumstances
  4. The way in which its activities are managed or organised by senior management (those persons who play a significant role) was a substantial element of that breach

The Act does not create new duties of care, rather it lists those which are derived from the law of negligence. Given the circumstances of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, any charges brought are likely to rely primarily on the duty in section 2 (1) (c) (ii) of the act, ‘a duty owed in connection with the carrying on by the organisation of any construction or maintenance operations’. Activities caught by this section include the ‘construction, installation, alteration, extension, improvement, repair, maintenance, decoration, cleaning, demolition or dismantling of any building or structure’.

The Act does not specify what will constitute ‘significant’ or ‘substantial’; this means that the Prosecution will have to undertake a detailed and thorough analysis of the structures of both organisations which should be carefully scrutinised before any charges are brought. These factors should be fully considered together with any counter-representations made by the organisations themselves. In addition, the Act requires the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions before proceedings for an offence of Corporate Manslaughter can be instituted.

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