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Innocent at risk from wrath of law

The concern over the financial implications of accidental death in colleges (page 1) may appear to be in bad taste. After all, no amount of money stripped from a college's budget is as serious as the loss of a life.

But in the event of such a tragedy, colleges must be allowed to continue meeting the needs of all students, as well as coming to terms with their responsibility for any death which might result in prosecution under the new legislation.

There is little point in punishing a college found guilty of manslaughter by imposing a fine which forces it to close provision - to the detriment of potentially hundreds of students. Equally, if the courts only impose modest fines, the legislation will be seen as too soft. The accusation will be made that the law punishes the private sector while letting the public sector off the hook.

This is the critical flaw in the legislation. If the courts take a hard line, they will be punishing the innocent - the students - for the failings of the guilty. If the courts go soft, this will prove to be a toothless measure as courts show restraint "in the public interest".

Creating a statutory offence of corporate manslaughter is perhaps symptomatic of the trend towards blaming institutions rather than individuals when things go wrong. We have seen it with the concept of "institutional" racism, which spreads the blame for discrimination so widely that no individual is made to feel responsible.

It is true that common law corporate manslaughter was a difficult offence to make stick and the Ministry of Justice is confident this new legislation will lead to more convictions. But "bad law" does not become "good law" simply because the prospects of a conviction are increased.

Colleges are by nature risk-averse, compared to private sector businesses. It would be very sad if the risk of financial disaster following an unlawful death leads them to shy away from providing teenagers with experiences such as rock-climbing, yachting and outward-bound trips.

A generation of people who have grown up without these things - which promote mental as well as physical development - will be at far greater risk.

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