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Government ruminations on ‘corporate manslaughter’ for workplace deaths

by Stephen on June 25th, 2015

Earlier this week, Justice Minister Amy Adams was quoted in the media as saying that she had asked Michael Woodhouse (the Minister of Workplace Relations) to consider adding a new offence of ‘corporate manslaughter’ to the list of reforms in the Health and Safety Reform Bill.

The media reports indicate that Ms Adams considered that there needs to be a clear pathway for prosecutions against corporates when an employee dies from serious health and safety failings, and that, in her opinion, the most natural place for such provision would be in the health and safety reform legislation.

In turn, Mr Woodhouse was quoted as responding by saying that:

“There’s already a strong sanctions regime, but I’m certainly open to having a look at the suggestion around corporate manslaughter.”

This turn of events seems, to many commentators, as a little strange – particularly whilst Parliament is mid-stream in its work on the Health and Safety Reform Bill and the Bill is due to be reported back from the Select Committee late next month.

And this development comes not long after various media reports (and much Sunday newspaper comment) that the Health and Safety Reform Bill may have been watered down as a result of pressure from within the Cabinet or even the wider National party caucas.

The idea of a corporate manslaughter offence (at least in New Zealand) is not new and has been talked about in the aftermath of the Pike River Coal Mine Tragedy. Since then, there seem to have been suggestions about how it might be implemented – although the Government response indicated that the creation of such a new offence was unlikely.

It is noteworthy that, hard on the heels of Amy Adam’s first announcement, she has moved swiftly to clarify that:

• any new offence would not be aimed at individual directors; and
• any change might simply be a stiffening of the existing penalties (and the label ‘corporate manslaughter’ would not be used) – so that those penalties would be in the context of the new health and safety regime and not within the framework of the Crimes Act.

On the basis that the new health and safety regime currently before Parliament, includes financial penalties of up to $600,000 and the prospect of up to 5 years’ jail for those who failed to take practical steps – it is difficult to see that this week’s ruminations are little more than a means of gauging the public’s temperature.

For example, it is difficult to see New Zealand wanting to follow moves in the UK to expose directors to personal liability liable under a ‘corporate manslaughter’ regime that is seen as being unsuccessful.

Further information

If you would like more information about any of the matters discussed in this note, please contact me.

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