Accountability at last

01 September 2011
Sophie Farthing, Policy Officer

It’s almost too obvious to say we all have a right to life. It’s protected in law by our Human Rights Act, which requires the Government to take positive steps to ensure this right is guaranteed. Most of us live freely and can access fundamentals like food, clean water and medical care.

But for certain people – often the most vulnerable and isolated – there has been a gaping hole in the Government’s approach to protecting life. This has finally been rectified today with the introduction of the corporate manslaughter offence for public organisations, under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007.

The new offence means public bodies can now face prosecution if senior management failings amount to gross negligence and result in the death of someone in custody. This was a provision that Liberty, alongside other campaigners, fought hard for when the Act was being passed. When the Bill was tabled it applied solely to private organisations – only intense lobbying secured an amendment extending its remit to public bodies as well.

Before today, if a detained mentally ill person died in hospital, a prisoner hanged himself in his cell or a foreign national died while being deported, there was no formal corporate accountability available; no enforceable sanction for the deadly institutional and systemic failings that may have been responsible.

Investigations and inquests into any questionable death, like Jimmy Mbenga’s, or a death caused by public failures, as with Naomi Bryant, are crucial and allow for facts to be aired publicly and lessons learned. But while they can help explain the causes of death they cannot make binding recommendations. Being convicted of corporate manslaughter means an organisation could face unlimited fines, be ordered to change their policies and also forced to publish details of their failings.

While Liberty remains concerned about the extent of exemptions under the 2007 Act, and the high threshold required for charge, this new offence is crucial. It will ensure accountability and encourage best possible practice to try and minimise the risk of deaths in custody.

There have been 333 deaths in police custody over the last decade or so, not to mention deaths in other detention facilities nationwide. Let’s hope the introduction of this new offence will cut that number. If it prevents just one further tragedy, it will have been a success.