Of the 141 corporate manslaughter cases opened in England and Wales since records began in 2009, the CPS is currently investigating 56 with a view to prosecution. 63 cases were opened in 2012, up from 45 in 2011 and 26 in 2010, according to the figures.
Changes to the law from April 2008 meant that large and medium-sized companies could be found guilty of corporate manslaughter for deaths as a result of proven negligence by the organisation's management. Although there have only been three convictions under the new laws to date, health and safety law expert Simon Joyston-Bechal of Pinsent Masons said that the new figures showed this was "just the tip of an iceberg".
"A low number of convictions could lead businesses to think corporate manslaughter is an option little-used by prosecutors," he said. "However, these cases are very complex and can take a long time to come to trial. We can now see from these figures that there are a rapidly growing number of cases in the pipeline."
"Some have criticised the police and the CPS for the apparent under-use of a major new tool, but these figures show that prosecutors are increasingly active in pursuing corporate manslaughter, albeit slowly," he said.
The first successful corporate manslaughter conviction, in 2011, related to a death in 2008, Joyston-Bechal said. The remaining convictions, which took place in 2012, related to deaths in 2010 and 2008 respectively, he said.
"To date, it has taken two to four years for a conviction to be secured following a fatality. The offence has only applied to fatalities since 2008, so it is still very early days in terms of convictions," he said.
The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide 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.
Under the previous corporate manslaughter regime, companies and public bodies could only be found guilty of an offence if a senior figure, acting as the company's 'controlling mind', was also guilty. Convicted organisations, which can receive an unlimited fine for the new offence, can also include Government departments, prisons and immigration centres. 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.
Joyston-Bechal said that companies looking to cut costs should be careful to safeguard health and safety spending, as "cutting corners on safety in order to save money" would be viewed by prosecutors as an "aggravating feature" in the event that a company was guilty of an offence.
"There is a growing risk as the economy struggles to recover from recent recessions that companies see health and safety as a place to cut back on spending," he said. "It could be intentional cutbacks on health and safety training, advice or equipment upgrades; or, more worrying, a cut in staff that inadvertently cuts safety because safety is just one of the functions of those staff. Companies that do this could find their cost-cutting decisions leave them liable for prosecution if there is an accident."
"All businesses need to have robust health and safety procedures in place; including the adoption of measures that can be tailored by specialist health and safety lawyers to reduce the likelihood of prosecution should an incident occur," he said.