Claire Baker MSP has lodged a proposal for a Bill to amend the law of culpable homicide. According to Baker, “the reform of the law of culpable homicide is overdue” because it remains challenging to hold large or medium-size organisations to account.
Culpable homicide differs from murder as there is no need for there to have been an intention to harm the victim. The Crown only need to prove that an act, or failure to act, caused the death of the victim even if that was not the accused’s intention.
The proposed bill aims to ensure that when the loss of life is caused by the recklessness or negligence of individuals or organisations, the wrongdoer will be convicted of an offence that reflects the severity of the crime. The MSP hopes that the new legislation would serve as deterrence so that companies would adopt stricter health and safety rules and take the responsibility of providing safe working conditions more seriously.
Often, if a company’s negligence results in somebody’s death, the victim’s family has to be satisfied with some form of financial compensation. The bill quotes famous cases, such as the Transco case in 1999 when a family of four died in an explosion, and despite the gas network provider being held legally responsible for the deaths, nobody was convicted of criminal charges.
The reason why there are usually no convictions in these cases is that it is difficult to blame the decision of one person in a hierarchical corporate system. Even though the legal responsibility rests with the senior management of a company, the decisions that had tragic consequences could have been made by somebody below that level. However, for that reason, convicting smaller companies is easier, and therefore the current legislation, so Ms. Baker argues, has even led to discrimination. Smaller companies under current legislation are easier to be convicted and subjected to penalties.
Even though the UK government introduced a new legislation called Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 to address some of these issues, there had been fewer than five prosecutions pursued under this legislation since it was enacted, even though on average 17 people are killed in work-related incidents in Scotland each year.
The Culpable Homicide Bill proposes that a new legislation should make clear that a person is guilty of culpable homicide if they cause the death of another recklessly or by gross negligence. It also proposes more specific definitions for both by defining their elements. How an organisation or a Crown servant or agent (including a Minister, civil servant or department) may be liable for each of those offences would also be made clear.
Louise Taggart, a trustee of health and safety charity Scottish Hazards, welcomed the bill and said:
“This bill would not only plug the justice deficit faced by families, but would importantly serve as a deterrent to those who treat health and safety as a burden on business or a tiresome impediment to getting a job done.”
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