LONDON — The fire in June at Grenfell Tower in London, which killed around 80 people, prompted a wave of anger in Britain.
A public inquiry has been opened. Officials responsible for managing the apartment building have resigned. Similar buildings have been tested to see if their cladding, or outer covering, is vulnerable to fire.
On Tuesday, police officers investigating the disaster said they were considering charging individuals with manslaughter. The comments came after investigators said in July that they may charge the organizations that managed Grenfell Tower with corporate manslaughter — a rarer charge — under laws in Britain that allow for organizations, not just individuals, to be prosecuted.
What is corporate manslaughter?
Under Britain’s Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007, the senior management of an organization — such as a company, a government department or a police force — can be taken to court on charges of causing death through “a gross breach of a relevant duty of care.”
In effect: If an organization did not live up to its duties to keep a person safe, and a person died because of it, it is at risk of prosecution.
Interest in tougher rules to hold corporations responsible for deaths began to rise in Britain in the 1980s.
In particular, the 1987 sinking of the ferry Herald of Free Enterprise, which killed more than 180 people, provoked outrage and led to a government inquiry. Several more transportation accidents in the 1990s added to calls for new legislation.
“We don’t want to blame the worker,” said Celia Wells, a professor of criminal law at the University of Bristol who advised the government on the legislation. “We want to get at the corporation, or those involved in making the decisions.”
Before the law was introduced, organizations could be criminally charged if a person died because of a company’s failings, but there were limitations. For one, prosecutors could not aggregate the actions of multiple people. That made it hard to move against systemic problems in which several people were at fault.
Though the United States does not have such rules, Britain’s corporate manslaughter law is not unique.
Canada, for example, added a similar provision to its criminal code after a 1992 explosion at a mine in Nova Scotia killed 26 miners. (The police and the provincial government failed at the time to secure any convictions against the company.)
What is the punishment?
Fines for corporate manslaughter start at 180,000 pounds, or about $240,000, and could go up to £20 million, depending on the seriousness of the crime and the organization’s ability to pay.
The point, according to the Sentencing Council for England and Wales, is not to “value a human life in money.” Instead, the penalty aims to deter organizations from repeating the offense, and to target any gains made from committing the crime.
Courts can impose a “publicity order,” which requires organizations to publicize the details of their conviction and fine. They could also be required to take steps to address the issues that led to the death.
But that is the extent of the punishment. Managers cannot be put in prison for corporate manslaughter, nor for aiding and abetting in the crime.
They can, however, be prosecuted separately for a charge known as gross negligence manslaughter. The maximum sentence for an individual convicted of manslaughter is life imprisonment.
Have any organizations been found guilty?
Yes. The first company to be convicted of corporate manslaughter was Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings, which was fined £385,000 in 2011, after a geologist who was testing soil conditions was killed when a trench collapsed on him.
Martinisation, a construction firm, received the largest corporate manslaughter fine in the country to date. It was ordered this year to pay £2.4 million after two workers died when a railing gave way as they were hauling a heavy sofa onto a balcony.
But so far, the fines have mostly been in the hundreds of thousands of pounds — an indication of the size of the companies charged rather than of the gravity of the crime.
“A much larger company will take legal advice before embarking on a new project,” said Pavlos Panayi, a lawyer who focuses on corporate crime and who has experience in health and safety cases. “All that goes through rigorous compliance.”
What about Grenfell Tower?
Any decision to prosecute over the Grenfell blaze would be made by the Crown Prosecution Service and the Health and Safety Executive after investigations are completed. There is also a separate public inquiry into the disaster.
It may prove difficult to prosecute the local government responsible for the apartment tower. One part of the 2007 law on corporate manslaughter states that issues like the allocation of public resources do not amount to a “duty of care” — basically, a government prioritizing certain interests over others by making particular funding decisions is not at risk.
If the organizations that managed Grenfell Tower are charged, prosecutors would have to prove that senior managers had been involved in decisions that led to the deaths.
“It will be a test case for the act,” Professor Wells said.