Longer sentences for H&S manslaughter?

You may be given a longer prison sentence if as an employer you commit gross negligence manslaughter.

Gross negligence manslaughter is used to prosecute people who fail in a duty of care and cause someone’s death. It includes employers who fail to look after the safety of their workers.

What’s happening?

Draft sentencing guidelines have been drawn up for manslaughter offences by the Sentencing Council for England and Wales.

In a consultation paper, the council says it wants judges to take a tougher line in manslaughter cases where safety is overlooked in favour of cost cutting.

Why change?

Judges have relatively limited sentencing guidance for manslaughter.

The draft proposals are the first comprehensive manslaughter guidelines for cases that include unintended deaths resulting from a workplace fatality caused by an employer’s negligence. Judges currently have no set guidelines in such cases and use previous case law to decide the length of a sentence. This has raised concern that the worst offenders are not given nearly enough jail time.

It is also hoped the proposals will prevent a disaster such as the Grenfell Tower tragedy from being repeated.

What’s changing?

Under the new guidelines, offenders will be given longer sentences for gross negligence manslaughter:

  • when motivated by financial gain
  • when they knew their actions were likely to cause harm
  • if they were in a “dominant role”

Negligent conduct motivated by financial gain is said to indicate “high culpability” or degree of fault. The council says this might be where employers cut costs by failing to provide adequate equipment.

The council recommend courts also take a tougher line with those who are aware of, but fail to respond to, a risk of death. High culpability would therefore apply if you were clearly aware of a risk of death arising from negligent conduct. The council states: “There are some situations where the offender was clearly aware of the risk of death either because it had been pointed out and/or acknowledged by the offender or because it was so obvious that the offender was clearly aware of it.”

What’s more, the guidelines say there may be high culpability where several people breach their duty of care and the offender is in a position of influence.

In considering the factors that make an offence of gross negligence manslaughter more or less serious the council concludes it may sometimes be proper to increase sentences. This is typically said to be where employers have a “long standing utter disregard” for employee safety and are “motivated by cost cutting”.

What sentences are currently given?

The longest sentences received by those convicted of gross negligence manslaughter are usually from six to eight years.

Last year, restaurant owner Mohammed Zaman was jailed for six years after causing the death of a customer who was allergic to peanuts. The average sentence for gross negligence manslaughter in 2014 was four years.

A separate offence of corporate manslaughter exists for companies that cause death due to severe management failings. This can be punished with an unlimited fine.

How tough will the new sentencing be?

The proposed starting point where there’s high culpability is eight years.

In the most serious cases, the Sentencing Council advises that judges hand out prison terms of up to 18 years.

Sentencing Council member Mr Justice Holroyde says: “In developing these guidelines, we have been keenly aware of the impact caused by these offences and so the guidelines aim to ensure sentencing that properly reflects both the culpability of the offender and the seriousness of the harm caused.”

What next?

A consultation period on the draft guidelines runs until October.

The new rules are to be introduced from the middle of next year.

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