Leading lawyer’s doubts about proposed corporate manslaughter law

This decade has brought the issue of workplace fatalities sharply into New Zealanders' collective consciousness. The Pike River mining disaster in 2010, the collapse of the Christchurch Television building during the 2011 earthquake and a wave of fatalities within the forestry industry, have ignited public interest in safety. The Government is now reconsidering the merits of a corporate manslaughter law.

Grant Nicholson, a leading health and safety lawyer, says he doubts a corporate manslaughter law would have the desired effect of lessening workplace deaths in New Zealand. He believes adjustments to the current system would be more appropriate.

"Fundamentally, I don't think a law change will work because organisations don't get up in the morning and say, 'right, which one of our workers are we going to kill today?'

"Almost all businesses are doing the best they can to understand and manage their risks.. Having another offence on the books isn't likely to be a significant deterrent or motivator to change behaviours."

Grant Nicholson, a leading health and safety lawyer, says he doubts a Corporate Manslaughter law would have the desired effect of lessening workplace deaths in New Zealand

Nicholson, a partner at law firm Anthony Harper, says he understands the pain and anger of the families of victims working their way through the stages of grief after a loved one has been killed at work. He recognises their desire to feel someone has been properly held accountable but says this could be better resolved by increasing the penalties in the existing system, rather than introducing a new law.

"People seem to believe the penalties we currently have in health and safety cases are not sufficiently punitive or that they aren't sufficiently personal. They feel either the punishment isn't fitting the crime or people are getting away scot free, as in the case of the engineer who designed the Christchurch CTV building, who wasn't prosecuted despite 115 people dying in the building.

"I think those are natural feelings for people to have, but they can be better addressed by tweaking the existing system than creating an additional law which I believe won't make a material difference to what we already have."

Nicholson says before a corporate manslaughter law is considered, it needs to be viewed through a uniquely New Zealand lens, and reflect the potential pitfalls for SMEs, which make up most of New Zealand's businesses. Increasing fines won't make a difference to SMEs who are already struggling to pay, and imprisoning senior leaders won't change things if it is only the SMEs that get prosecuted. Supporters of a corporate manslaughter law may say that won't happen, but despite good intentions it has been the common outcome with similar laws in the United Kingdom.

"There needs to be some lobbying from New Zealand's business community if they think there's a better way to be dealing with this, and if they think there's an opportunity for the Government to be more constructive in its approach," he says.

"If the goal of everyone is the same, and hopefully it is, to keep people safe and not have people die at work, then what's the best way we can constructively push people towards that objective? I'm not sure that locking up more chief executives is going to make that difference."