Workplace Fatalities - Criminal Proceedings
October 19th, 2011 by Louise Humphreys
One of the most difficult issues which arises for both families and employers affected by a work-related fatality is the length of time which the criminal legal process can take. Timescales of three years plus are not uncommon and the ramifications for all involved can be enormous. However, change may be on the horizon with revisions to the protocol governing the way in which authorities in England & Wales co-ordinate investigation and prosecution following a work-related death ("Work Related Deaths: A Protocol for Liaison").
At present, only the police can investigate serious criminal offences (other than health & safety offences) such as manslaughter and only the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) can decide whether such a case will proceed. The police also have an interest in establishing the circumstances surrounding a work-related death in order to assist the coroner's inquest. The new version of the protocol does not make any changes in this respect.
Health & safety offences are usually prosecuted by the relevant enforcing authority in accordance with current enforcement policy. The CPS may also prosecute health and safety offences, but usually does so only when prosecuting other serious criminal offences, such as manslaughter, arising out of the same circumstances.
The main change in the protocol comes in respect of when prosecuting bodies other than the CPS can bring charges. Until now, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and local authorities had to await the end of the coroner's inquest before making their decision whether to prosecute for health & safety offences. Under the new protocol, once they have completed the investigation they will consider whether it is appropriate to charge any health & safety offences at that stage or await the result of the coroner's inquest before making that decision. In making that decision they will consult with the police, CPS, coroner, the deceased's family and any other person who may have a legitimate interest.
This change should make an immediate difference to the length of time it can take for fataility prosecutions to reach the Courts and that can only be good news for everyone involved.
Of course the HSE and local authorities have often used the inquest as a method of testing available evidence before bringing charges, particularly as corporate bodies do not have the same rights as individuals about avoiding answering questions which may incriminate them. However, it is to be hoped that the HSE and local authorities will embrace the change. Only time will tell.