Alasdair Palmer says the charges against Railtrack’s Gerald Corbett are the cynical prelude to a law on corporate killing
The families of the four people who were killed in the Hatfield rail crash are reported to be ‘jubilant’ that a total of six managers from Railtrack and Balfour Beatty are to be charged with manslaughter. They are also said to be quite pleased that Railtrack and Balfour Beatty, the companies with responsibility for maintaining the Hatfield track, are to face charges of ‘corporate manslaughter’, and that five other executives will be tried. It is, they say, a sign that ‘people will be held accountable’.
The legal process itself, however, is likely to disappoint them. The prosecutions against the companies are not likely to succeed. In fact, they are so flimsy that some of the lawyers who have scrutinised them find it difficult to understand how they can have been approved by the Director of Public Prosecutions. The DPP has produced a 223-page indictment, but nowhere in it is there anything which explains how any of those charged can be guilty of ‘corporate manslaughter’. After the prosecutions from the Southall rail crash failed, the Court of Appeal ruled that for charges of ‘corporate manslaughter’ to succeed, they have to be directed against a ‘controlling mind’ — someone senior enough to be able to represent the company and determine what its policies would be.
None of the men from Balfour Beatty was in anything like that kind of position; it is very hard to see how any of the men from Railtrack were either. The Court of Appeal’s decision in the Southall case also confirmed that, as it stands, the law rules out any prosecution based on ‘agglomeration’: lumping together a series of failings by junior managers and then identifying a particular named senior executive as responsible for them all.