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When death is corporate fault

A new law means governing bodies or local authorities could be found liable if fatalities occur on school premises or trips. Georgina Fuller explains

Q: The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 becomes effective this year. What is it about?

A: From Sunday, April 6, any government bodies or companies found guilty of breaching health and safety practices and subsequently causing a fatality could face prosecution, unlimited fines and a publicity order. The Act creates a statutory offence in England, Wales and Northern Ireland of "corporate manslaughter", and in Scotland of "corporate homicide".

Q: What impact will it have on schools?

A: Schools are not actually classified as "incorporated bodies" under the new law, but a school's governing body andor local authority can still be found liable. If any fatalities occur on school grounds or on a school trip, the governing body or local authority could be prosecuted. If a teacher, pupil, parent, contractor or member of the public has a fatal accident, the school could be found guilty.

Q: What should headteachers be doing about it?

A: The Health and Safety Executive advises that every school appoints a representative who has clear responsibilities for health and safety and is provided with all the necessary training and resources. Risk assessments and general maintenance should be carried out in any relevant areas (such as the gym or science lab), and schools should keep records of any staff with first aid or lifesaving qualifications. Under the new law, the entire senior management team can be held to account, so all staff should become familiar with the relevant regulations if they are not already.

Q: How likely is a prosecution?

A: A school has to be found to have behaved with "gross" negligence before it can be prosecuted. It would have to be proven that the school had completely breached its duty of care to the deceased. If, for example, there was a gas leak in a classroom and no sufficient measures had been taken to deal with it and a pupil died as a result, it would probably amount to a "gross breach".

Q: What about school trips?

A: School trips are a potentially hazardous area already, and this legislation makes them even more precarious. The tragic death of Max Palmer, a 10-year-old who drowned in a plunge pool on a school trip to Cumbria in 2000, highlighted what can happen when things go wrong. Headteachers should ensure that the trip leader is competent in all aspects of health and safety and carries out the necessary risk assessments. The trip should have clear "educational objectives", and schools should make sure they have written policies and procedures in place, with a plan B option in all circumstances.

Q: What is the worst-case scenario?

A: Schools are already vulnerable in terms of liability, and the act reinforces that. The growing culture of blame and violence - in which children as young as 10 are carrying knives, and teachers are held to account for anything that goes wrong - is worrying enough. The stabbing of a 14-year-old boy in a Newcastle classroom last month was, sadly, no longer that shocking. Under the new law, schools could be vilified for any tragic accidents and become scapegoats. Headteachers need to demonstrate that they have done all they can to prevent any fatalities. Unfortunately, accidents do happen and schools will be in the firing line.

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