The Crown Prosecution Service's corporate manslaughter charges against eight Railtrack and Balfour Beatty bosses over the Hatfield disaster could buy the Government more time over enacting its Corporate Killing Bill.
They should not be brought under the existing law.
While the victims' families will be understandably pleased with the decision to prosecute, they are likely to have been warned that under the present law the CPS' chances of securing convictions are not high.
No doubt under significant political pressure the police and CPS will have put a great deal of work into the criminal investigation.
However, the prosecution will run up against the perennial problem in achieving a conviction - the need to establish that the individual defendant is a directing and controlling mind of the body corporate.
Fail to do that and the individual has to be acquitted and, moreover, the jointly-charged corporate defendant for whom he works has to be acquitted as well. This delayed legislation could have held the key to a successful prosecution.
If convictions do not follow it will bring the government under increasing pressure to enact the Corporate Killing Bill.
The families may also take solace from several other factors. First, the investigation should determine all of the relevant facts and explain fully why the crash occurred.
Second, at the very least, it should demonstrate to companies and wider industries what steps must be taken to prevent it happening again.
If convictions do follow the families will achieve some justice, but at what cost? Possibly an easing of pressure on the government to get Corporate Killing Bill to the statute book?
Not a good thing for the families of victims killed in less high profile cases for whom the Act may be the only way to achieve justice through the criminal system.
There are a variety of other issues for this case to face, namely what if it is not concluded before the Government enacts the Bill?
Surely that would give added fuel to the legal defence teams and adversely affect the chances of the prosecution getting convictions. Had the government moved quicker and introduced corporate killing legislation sooner these issues would be academic.
Weightman Vizards' regulatory advice and assistance unit
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