Following the Grenfell fire, the Metropolitan Police have stated there are “reasonable grounds” to suspect corporate manslaughter may have been committed. Caroline Dunne, a Consultant Solicitor specialising in regulatory offences, examines the law in this area
On 14 June, a devastating fire at Grenfell Tower in Kensington claimed the lives of almost 80 people. The tragedy represented the second greatest loss of life resulting from a building/structure fire disaster on the British Isles in peacetime since the fire at the Theatre Royal, Exeter, in 1887 – with the exception of the Piper Alpha oil rig explosion and fire in 1988, in which 167 people died.
In a letter issued to residents and relatives affected by the Grenfell tragedy, the Metropolitan Police stated that there are “reasonable grounds” to suspect the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea and the Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation of corporate manslaughter.
Criminal liabilities of companies
The Corporate Manslaughter & Corporate Homicide Act 2007 came into force on 6 April 2008 and was intended to clarify the criminal liabilities of companies where serious failures result in a fatality.
An organisation to which this legislation applies is guilty of an offence if the manner in which its activities are managed or organised causes a person’s death and amounts to a gross breach of a relevant duty of care owed by the organisation to the deceased.
The offence only applies to organisations and not to individuals. The organisations to which this offence applies are specified within the act and includes local authorities, NHS bodies and government departments, as well as corporations.
Gross breach of a duty of care
A gross breach of a duty of care must be established. This means the conduct of the organisation falls far below that which could reasonably be expected and a substantial element of the breach must be the way in which the organisation’s activities are managed and organised by its senior management.
The death must have been caused by the gross breach of duty.
Offences under this legislation will be investigated by the police in partnership with the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), local authority or other regulatory body, such as Food Standards Agency. The act does not provide the police with a power to arrest individuals but organisations such as the HSE have powers of entry and can seize any equipment or documents as part of its investigation. Any investigation will need to consider how the fatal activity was managed or organised, including the systems and processes in place and how these were operated in practice.
Any prosecution will be brought by the Crown Prosecution Service and will be dealt with in a Crown Court. An organisation guilty of the offence of corporate manslaughter will be liable to an unlimited fine by the criminal court, which would be in addition to any compensation awarded in the civil courts.
A remedial order requiring the steps to be taken to remedy any management failure that led to the death can also be ordered, alongside an order requiring the company to publicise its conviction with details of the amount of the fine imposed and the terms of any remedial order.
The above legislation only applies to corporate bodies. However, existing health and safety offences and gross negligence manslaughter will continue to apply to individuals.
Individual manslaughter charges
Police investigating the fire at Grenfell say they may pursue individuals as well as corporations, which could potentially see individuals facing charges of manslaughter, fraud, misconduct, health and safety breaches and breaches of fire safety regulations.
The Grenfell fire: “A watershed moment” for tall building safety rules?
Until the Grenfell Tower disaster, the Lakanal House fire in 2009, in which six people died, was Britain’s worst tower block disaster. Southwark Council pleaded guilty to fire safety breaches which contributed to the deaths.
Following the Lakanal House fire, the coroner, Judge Frances Kirkham, made a number of safety recommendations, which included “encouraging” housing providers “to consider the retrofitting of sprinkler systems”, improving building regulations and improving clarity on the fire safety advice given to residents.
It was also noted that panels on the outside of Lakanal House, fitted in 2006-07, were not fire resistant and allowed the fire to spread from the flat where the blaze started in under five minutes.
In 2013, the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety & Rescue Group called for a review of safety regulations. However, this has not been progressed by the government.
As a result of the enormity of the devastation of Grenfell, the public will expect to see those responsible brought to justice and for safety regulations to be updated and implemented. While a fine is unlikely to be considered justice for all those who lost their lives, this disaster is likely to result in significant changes in building regulations and corporate responsibility.
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