Debate developing over ‘corporate manslaughter’ legislation

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On Tuesday, Justice Minister Amy Adams said that she had asked the Workplace Relations Minister to add a corporate manslaughter provision to the Workplace Health and Safety Reform Bill.

Workplace Relations Minister Michael Woodhouse stated that although “there's already a strong sanctions regime,” he was “certainly open to having a look at the suggestion around corporate manslaughter”.

However, it has since been suggested that the implementation of a corporate manslaughter law would simply involve harsher penalties, and the term itself would not be used in legislation.

Later this week, Adams said that the tougher punishments for the offence would not be aimed at individual directors.

“I've made it clear my expectation is that it's liability for the corporation not for individual directors,” she said. “But clearly corporations do need to have avenues to be held accountable when people die. The appropriate place for that is in the health and safety legislation.”

The concept of introducing corporate manslaughter charges originated in 2013, when an Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety suggested the existing criminal manslaughter offence should be extended to corporate affairs.

“Rather than being included in the health and safety reform legislation, the Taskforce recommended that the current criminal manslaughter offence be extended to corporations, which would require attributing criminal liability to a corporation where two or more individuals of the required seniority within the company engaged in conduct that, had that been the conduct of only one person, would have made them personally liable for the office,” said Tim Clarke, Partner and Grace Stacey-Jacobs, Solicitor at Bell Gully.

The Health and Safety Reforms Bill already includes sanctions meaning that corporations or individuals who are found liable for preventable workplace deaths could be fined up to $600,000, or receive a prison sentence of up to five years.

Speaking this week, Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce commented that there was no certainty the charge would be legislated.

“[Adams] was saying that she didn't see a place for corporate manslaughter in the Criminal Act and it should be handled, any prosecution that's under health and safety that involves death should be handled, under the health and safety legislation,” he said. “[But] I think it's a step further to say that there should be a corporate manslaughter charge in the health and safety legislation.”

“The Government’s reconsideration of a corporate manslaughter offence is an odd development at such a late stage in the progress of the bill, especially given the Select Committee has already received submissions and is due to report back to the House on July 29 (some 10 months after the report was first due),” added Clarke and Stacey-Jacobs. “It is also somewhat inconsistent with recent media reports speculating that the bill has been ‘watered down’.”

Prime Minister John Key said that he was aware that the changes were being considered, but added that he was yet to be given details of the final proposal. He added that corporate manslaughter legislations had failed in the United Kingdom in the past.

To read Clarke and Stacey-Jacobs’ full analysis, click here.

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