A fire at the luxury Cameron House Hotel and Spa in December 2017 led to the death of two men, Richard Dyson and Simon Midgley, who were guests at the hotel at the time of the blaze. The source of the blaze was identified as having started due to a night porter placing a bag of ashes from a fire into a cupboard containing kindling and newspapers.
Following the fire, Cameron House pled guilty to failings to implement fire safety measures which were necessary to ensure the safety of staff and guests. Cameron House have now been handed a fine of £500,000 for these failings. The night porter responsible for the accidental ignition of the fire was given a community payback order of 300 hours.
Survivors of the fire at Cameron House have expressed their disappointment and anger at the leniency of the sentencing handed down to both the responsible individual and systemic failures by Cameron House.
Claire Baker MSP proposed a bill in the Scottish Parliament to create a new offence of ‘causing death by gross negligence’. The main thrust of the bill was to amend the law of culpable homicide to ensure that where there is loss of life caused by the recklessness or gross negligence of individuals, companies or organisations, where proven, the wrongdoer can be convicted of the offence that reflects the appropriate seriousness and moral opprobrium of what occurred.
The bill sought to build on legislation previously introduced by the UK Government, namely the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007. The Bill consultation cited implementation issues and a lack of prosecutions under the current legislation as reasons why the current legislation was failing. Further, there has been difficulty arising from the definition of “senior manager”. A study conducted by the University of Northumbria noted the legislation was discriminatory to smaller companies whose corporate structure was much more transparent. Apportioning blame to an individual director or ‘senior manager’ within a large scale company was a difficult task from the present legislation under criminal law. Further, there has been no prosecutions under the current legislation in Scotland despite it being in power for the last decade.
Certainly the lack of prosecutions under the 2007 Act can be criticised and highlights that the current legislation is failing to hold companies accountable. Similarly, the legislation does not adequately act as a deterrent to companies when there appears no ‘real’ risk of a prosecution being brought under the 2007 Act.
The lack of clarity in the present legal position in relation to corporate homicide and its consistent application to individuals, small and medium companies and multinationals was a cited reason for reform.
Whilst the bill received cross party support, it fell by 26 votes in favour to 89 against. The main issue with the bill appears to be the view that it fell out with the competency of the Scottish Parliament to enact the legislative change. This was a view supported by both the presiding officer and the Scottish Government. This position was not expanded upon. There is however a present Scottish Law Commission into homicide generally. This is due for completion in 2023 and fresh legislation may well be recommended once the commission has finalised its review.
An issue that will remain, whether the bill be passed or not, is the need to reform how large organisations operate in promoting transparent decision-making processes which increase corporate accountability. Such changes are likely to lead to the ability to enforce such prosecutions under corporate homicide legislation, be this in the form of a new bill or the existing legislation.
Whether a working legislation that can effectively target individuals within a large corporate structure can be implemented, remains to be seen. However where large corporations are not encouraged, by law, to provide transparency with decision making, then any reform may be doomed to fall short.
Blog by Conor Kenny, Solicitor