Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Corporate manslaughter ruling

It has taken two years, but a case based on the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 has at last come to court. In theory this now makes it easier to prosecute a corporate body following a death of an employee.

Before governors start resigning in droves, however, it is worth stressing that, while the aim of the act is to make prosecutions easier, it does not expose them to personal risk. The prosecution would be against the school and the fine, up to 25 per cent of annual turnover, would be payable by the organisation not individuals.

The key to defending a prosecution is compliance with the safety laws in general and ensuring that there are not "attitudes, policies, systems or accepted practices within the organisation" that are likely to encourage safety failures that lead to death. Moreover, to fall foul of the law there must be an element of recklessness about the actions that led to the death.

It should not be difficult for schools and colleges to avoid such a situation.

However, it is worth making the point that risks do not only come from the dangers of working at height or operating dangerous machinery. If a school failed to identify a person or a situation as a risk, even though that person or situation was clearly dangerous, then there could be a possibility of corporate manslaughter.

For instance, if a known, dangerous student was placed in a situation where s/he might damage a member of staff or another student without the school or college seeking advice on how to manage him or her, without a proper risk assessment and without proper procedures to guard against it, and if the student did then kill a member of staff or another student, then there might be a possible ground for corporate manslaughter. It must be stressed, though, that the student would have to be known to be dangerous, not just difficult or 'normally' violent.

Schools and colleges also need to be prudent in assuming a duty of care. To take an extreme case: if a governing body recommended that senior staff patrol an area round the grounds where knife crime was rife and known dangerous characters hung around, and a head acted on this without discussing the likely danger with the police and considering a risk assessment of the situation, and a member of the senior team was killed, there might be a case for corporate manslaughter.

Generally, there should be nothing to worry about. Foreseeable risks can and should be guarded against and normal sensible procedures, checked up on and followed through, will ensure that schools and colleges are safe and governors can sleep easy in their beds.

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