NHS Trust acquitted of Corporate Manslaughter

Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust have had their charge for corporate manslaughter dismissed after the Judge decided there was no case to answer.

The case against Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust, the first trust to be prosecuted for Corporate Manslaughter, collapsed when the Judge indicated after the prosecution closed their case that there was no case for the defence to answer. The Judge was particularly critical of the prosecution of Dr Cornish for Gross Negligence Manslaughter as “as far removed from a gross negligence manslaughter case as it is possible to be”. 

In respect of the Trust, whilst he accepted that there might be some criticism over the specific working practices on the day of the accident, he stated that the breaches were not gross. In respect of the arguments over recruitment, selection and monitoring of medical staff, he rejected the broad criticisms alleged by the prosecution over the appointment of the two doctors involved.

This is a critically important decision that:

  • Suggests the CPS may need to revisit their criteria for bringing such prosecution.
  • Reaffirms the high bar set regarding what  is required to prove corporate manslaughter (i.e. that conduct must actually be reprehensible or reckless and attributable to senior management, rather than just negligent).
  • Curtails an apparent attempt to broaden the ambit of the Act to criticise, with the benefit of hindsight, routine decisions of staff selection and supervision.

It is good news for the NHS who, owing to the fact that deaths inevitably occur in hospital care settings, would be particularly exposed to any broadening of the ambit of the Act, and for other dutyholders. It should be noted that the Trust is a more complex and sophisticated body in terms of management structure than the organisations previously prosecuted under the Act which has failed to convict any “large” (i.e. over £50m turnover) companies to date. 

In light of the enormous fines for companies that can potentially be levied under the new Sentencing Guidelines for breaches of health and safety legislation, which are far easier to prove, it is also now questionable what purpose corporate manslaughter prosecutions serve in all but the most serious of cases. 

The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act appears to have  had the strange effect of making it easier to bring corporate manslaughter charges against smaller companies (where management are visible “on the ground”) whereas trying to convict companies with large and sophisticated management structures is much more difficult. This is of course not what the Act’s intended purpose appears to have been, given public concerns over incidents such as Piper Alpha, various derailments and the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster were cited when it was first introduced.

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This information is intended as a general discussion surrounding the topics covered and is for guidance purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice. DWF is not responsible for any activity undertaken based on this information.

Paul Matthews

Partner - Head of Regulatory (Yorkshire and North East)

I am a Partner in the Regulatory team and a corporate defence specialist who provides up-front regulatory compliance advice and representation to businesses and senior managers in relation to investigations and prosecutions by regulatory bodies.