The Sentencing Council has released a definitive sentencing guideline for manslaughter offences which will come into force on 1 November 2018.
It is the first time a comprehensive guideline has been published for these offences and the Sentencing Council has said it hopes the guideline will promote consistency in sentences for manslaughter that truly reflect the true seriousness of the crimes.
The guideline deals with all of the manslaughter offences, from unintended death arising from assault to workplace fatalities, in one document. It is notable that gross negligence manslaughter, which often applies in a health and safety context, has been dealt with separately to other health and safety offences (including corporate manslaughter) which are dealt with in the Health and Safety Offences, Corporate Manslaughter and Food Safety and Hygiene Offences Definitive Guideline, which was introduced in February 2016. This indicates that policy makers and the judiciary do not wish to distinguish between different types manslaughter in different environments and want to ensure that the punishments match the consequences of the crime in all cases, namely the loss of life.
It has been widely recognised that the Sentencing Guidelines for Health and Safety Offences which came into force on February 2016, brought with them huge increases in the levels of fines, with fine levels regularly exceeding £1 million. The new manslaughter guideline, which applies to individuals, is seen to be the final piece of the puzzle, bringing the sentences for gross negligence manslaughter definitively in line with other health and safety offences.
For gross negligence manslaughter, the guideline provides sentencing judges with a range of sentencing options from one to 18 years imprisonment per offence. It takes into account culpability on a sliding scale from A-D (A being very high), and states that, given the loss of life, harm will always be of the utmost seriousness. Then, the guidelines provide the courts with a sentencing starting point and ranges for each of the culpability categories.
It goes on to list a number of aggravating and mitigating factors for the courts to consider which will, in turn, affect the length of the sentence handed down. Given that the guideline deals with a wide range of offences arising from a number of different circumstances, the aggravating and mitigating factors are not tailored to offences arising in a health and safety/workplace context.
The aggravating factors most applicable to a death in the workplace situation include; previous convictions, ignoring previous warnings and others put at risk of harm by the offending. Relevant mitigating factors include; no previous convictions, the offender was subject to stress or pressure which contributed to the negligent conduct, cooperation with the investigation, the negligent conduct was compounded by the actions or omissions of others beyond the offender's control and for reasons beyond the offender's control they hadn't been properly trained or supported.
It is interesting to note that the list of mitigating factors has changed quite significantly since the draft guideline was published and a number of factors were added to the final document. This is as a result of the responses to the consultation submitted by a number of industry bodies including the Law Society, the Health and Safety Lawyers Association and the TUC. Generally, it was felt among these organisations that the draft guideline was not fit for purpose and would not appropriately assist courts in sentencing offences arising from workplace deaths. While there have been improvements in this regard since the draft was published, it could be said that the guideline still lacks specificity in relation to gross negligence manslaughter in a workplace context. Perhaps a better home for these types of offences would have been within the existing Sentencing Guidelines for Health and Safety Offences.
The true impact of the guideline remains to be seen. We expect that sentences will increase significantly for gross negligence manslaughter offences and it will be interesting to see how the Courts apply the guideline to offences arising from a death in the workplace.