Bereaved family members of victims of workplace incidents should receive speedier justice as a result of forthcoming changes that will enable more health and safety prosecutions to proceed prior to a coroner’s inquest being held.
The Work-related Deaths Protocol (WRDP) for England and Wales is overseen by a National Liaison Committee (NLC), whose membership includes the HSE, the Police, the Crown Prosecution Service, the British Transport Police, the Office of Rail Regulation and the Local Government Association.
Under the current arrangements, no health and safety charges can be brought until the conclusion of a coroner’s inquest. But changes to the WRDP, which are due to be introduced in October, will allow the HSE and other safety regulators to bring prosecutions against organisations and individuals before an inquest, thus bringing about a significant reduction in the number of cases subject to delay.
The WRDP arose out of the 1997 case of R v Beedie, and the need to avoid the risk that if there has been a successful prosecution for a health and safety offence prior to an inquest, any subsequent prosecution for manslaughter following an inquest verdict of unlawful killing could be held to be an abuse of process.
In the case of R v Beedie, a manslaughter charge was quashed because the accused had already been prosecuted for a health and safety offence relating to the defective state of a gas installation, which had resulted in a death. Consequently, the manslaughter prosecution should have been stayed as an abuse of process.
New guidance will set out the factors to be considered and the consultation necessary to ensure that the only prosecutions brought prior to an inquest are those in which the risk of a coroner subsequently issuing an unlawful-killing verdict is likely to be extremely low.
The proposals have been welcomed by construction union UCATT, whose acting general secretary George Guy said: “Anything which speeds up the justice system following the death of a worker is welcome. The current situation where a family loses a loved one, and then has to wait for many years before justice is done, is simply wrong.”
UCATT says roughly only 30 per cent of companies are convicted following the death of a construction worker. According to the union, long delays between a worker being killed and a court case occurring allow some employers to place their company into administration and start up another company with the same equipment and a similar name, in order to avoid a fine.
Consequently, the union hopes that the changes to the WRDP will also lead to an increase in the conviction rate of employers whose failings contribute to fatal incidents.
The amended WRDP will include two new signatories: the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the Chief Fire Officers Association.
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