Changes to the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act mean that prosecutions can now be brought against organisations holding people in custody, as well as employers.
The law will now apply to deaths in police custody suites, prison cells, mental health detention facilities, young offenders' institutions and immigration suites. It will also cover MoD institutions within the UK. Deaths of people being transported to and from prisons and detention centres will also be covered. Prosecutions will be able to take place where individuals have died as the result of proven negligence on the part of the organisation.
Simon Joyston-Bechal, a litigation expert with Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, commented that the new law could potentially apply to the suicide of a detainee, providing it could be shown that the culpable behaviour of the organisation had caused the suicide.
Previously individuals could be prosecuted for gross negligence following a death in custody, but the company or public body could not.
The Act creates an offence where the way in which an organisation's activities are managed or organised causes a person's death and amounts to a gross breach of a relevant duty of care owed by the organisation to the deceased. How the activities were managed or organised by senior management must be a substantial element of that gross breach.
The extension to the Act comes into force more than three years after the offence was first introduced. The Government agreed to give affected service providers an additional period in which to ensure sufficient training and practices were implemented before liability was introduced.
Nineteen men and two women died in police custody in 2010/11, according to Independent Police Complaints Commission figures.
Convicted organisations, including Government departments, could receive an unlimited fine. Courts can also impose an order requiring the company or organisation to publicise the fact that it has been convicted of the offence and provide details of the conviction.
Organisations could previously have been held to account under health and safety laws said Joyston-Bechal. However a report in the Guardian newspaper indicated that no successful prosecutions have been brought for deaths in custody to date, even in the 10 cases since 1990 where an inquest jury had returned a verdict of unlawful killing.
"Corporate manslaughter is the most serious health and safety offence for an organisation and will send the strongest possible message in the event of a conviction," said Joyston-Bechal.