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Law of Manslaughter

Manslaughter is a crime that can be committed by any individual or company in relation to a work-related death. No organisation - other than a company - can be prosecuted for this offence

Click here for issues relating to the investigation of manslaughter

Click here for the record of manslaughter prosecutions and details of recent Manslaughter cases.

Below is a summary of the current law. The Government is proposing legal reforms in this area. Click here to see discussion of these reforms.

Manslaughter by Individuals
This is a 'common law' offence. That is to say the offence has been developed by judges and is not contained in a legislative statute.

The 1995 House of Lords case of Adomako sets out the current test to prove the offence. An individual commits manslaughter when he or she causes a death through gross negligence.

'... the ordinary principles of the law of negligence apply to ascertain whether or not the defendant has been in breach of a duty of care towards the victim who has died. If such a breach of duty is established the next question is whether that breach of duty caused the death of the victim. If so, the jury must go on to consider whether that breach of duty should be characterised as gross negligence and therefore as a crime. This will depend on the seriousness of the breach of duty committed by the defendant in all the circumstances in which the defendant was placed when it occurred. The jury will have to consider whether the extent to which the defendant's conduct departed from the proper standard of care incumbent upon him, involving as it must have done a risk of death to the patient, was such that it could be judged criminal''Subjective' or 'objective' test"

One question that has come before the courts is whether this test requires
that the defendant was aware of the risks of injury or death created by his conduct (that is to say whether it is a 'subjective' test in which the state of mind of the defendant is important) or whether the defendant can be found guilty even if the defendant was unaware of the risks created by his conduct, along as the conduct itself can 'objectively' be considered to be gross neglect

Two legal decisions have dealt with this question - and have held that a person can be found guilty of manslaughter even when s/he is unaware of the risks that were created by his or her conduct. However, any evidence of awareness may assist the jury in coming to a conclusion that the defendant was grossly negligent

  • Attorney General's Reference No 2/1999 (February 2000) resulted from the unsuccessful prosecution of Great Western Railways over the Southall Rail Crash in September 1997. One of the questions that the Attorney General asked the Court of Appeal to clarify was: "can a defendant be properly convicted of manslaughter by gross negligence in the absence of evidence as to that defendant's state of mind?"

    "Although there may be cases where the defendant's state of mind is relevant to the jury's consideration when assessing the grossness and criminality of his conduct, evidence of his state of mind is not a pre-requisite to a conviction for manslaughter by gross negligence. The Adomako test is objective, but a defendant who is reckless … may well be the more readily found to be grossly negligent to a criminal degree."

    To download the judgement click here.

  • R v DPP ex parte Tim Jones, (March 2000) involved a successful Judicial Review of a decision by the Crown Prosecution Service not to prosecute the managing director of Euromin Ltd.

    The Key paragraph is:
    "If the accused is subjectively reckless, then that may be taken into account by the jury as a strong factor demonstrating that his negligence was criminal, but negligence will still be criminal in the absence of any recklessness if on an objective basis the defendant demonstrated what, for instance, Lord Mackay quoted the Court of Appeal in Adomako as describing as: "failing to advert to a serious risk going mere inadvertence in respect of an obvious and important manner in which the defendant's duty demanded he should address …"
  • To download this decision click here.
Manslaughter by a company
The test of whether a "company" is guilty of manslaughter or not is intrinsically linked to whether or not a director or senior manager of the company - a 'controlling mind and will' of the company - is guilty of manslaughter. If the director/manager is found guilty, the company is guilty; if the director/manager is found innocent, the company is innocent.

This is known as the 'identification' doctrine. The company is identified through its 'controlling officers'

As Justice Taylor stated in a 1990 ruling concerning the trial of P&O European Ferries for the manslaughter of those who died in the Zeebrugge Disaster:
"where a corporation, through the controlling mind of one of its agents, does an act which fulfils the pre-requisites for the crime of manslaughter, it is properly indictable for the crime of manslaughter."

To read more about who is considered to be a 'controlling mind', click here

In the trial of Great Western Trains over the Southall Train disaster, the Crown tried to argue that the this doctrine no longer applied and that it was possible to consider the conduct of the 'company' as a whole rather than the conduct of an individual 'controlling mind'. The trial judge however ruled that:

" There is, I accept, some attraction in the fact that gross negligence manslaughter, involving as it does an objective test rather than mens rea in the strict sense of the expression, is in some ways closer to statutory offences of the kind in the cases relied on by Mr Lissack than it is to the ordinary run of criminal offences. But I do not think this is a good reason for no longer having to look for a directing mind in the company to identify where the fault occurred. In my judgement it is still necessary to look for such a directing mind and identify whose gross negligence it is that fixes the company with criminal responsibility."
Accordingly, I conclude that the doctrine of identification which is both clear, certain and established is the relevant doctrine by which a corporation may be fixed with liability for manslaughter by gross negligence."
As a result of this ruling, the Attorney General asked the Court of Appeal for a clarification of the law on this point. In Attorney General's Reference No 2/1999, the court held that the Trial judge was correct and that "
"… the identification principle remains the only basis in common law for corporate liability for gross negligence manslaughter."
To Download this decision click here.

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Page last updated on July 25, 2004