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Small businesses warned as first corporate manslaughter trial under new law starts


As the UK's first corporate manslaughter trial under new legislation gets underway today, a law firm has said that small businesses are right to be concerned over the law.

The trial against Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings over the death of 27-year-old geologist Alexander Wright is taking place at Winchester Crown Court.

According to the website of the Centre for Corporate Accountability, Wright died on the 5 September 2008 while taking soil samples in Stroud, Gloucestershire when the sides of the pit he was excavating caved in on top of him.

The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act came into effect in April 2008. Under the legislation, companies can be convicted irrespective of whether a manager or director can be personally held liable.

Under previous legislation, prosecutions were rare because of the requirement to name an individual. The larger the organisation, the less likely that there would be any direct senior management involvement in the accident itself and the harder it was to prove to a criminal standard that the manager was responsible for any deaths.

As a result, corporate manslaughter charges were unable to be brought in high profile cases such as Zeebrugge ferry disaster and Hatfield rail crash.

Being the first of its kind, the case is being watched carefully.

Jonathan Grimes, partner of the criminal and regulatory department at law firm Kingsley Napley, said: "As this case demonstrates, smaller companies and their directors certainly have something to fear from the new legislation.

"However, it will probably take a large-scale and high profile fatal accident to truly test the ability of the prosecuting authorities to hold large companies to account.

"The real question is whether the police and CPS have the appetite for, and ability to pursue, prosecutions against large corporations. Time will tell."

Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings director Peter Eaton was originally charged with gross negligence manslaughter, but the case was stayed because of his ill health.

The trial continues and is expected to last three weeks.