'Are you waiting for another disaster?' - Pressure mounts on Government to introduce corporate manslaughter law

Justice Minister Andrew Little has reaffirmed his hope for a corporate manslaughter charge to be added to the Crimes Act, as part of a significant overhaul of the law that’s expected late next year.

There is growing concern NZ companies still lack culpability for work-related deaths after Pike River and the CTV building collapse. Source: 1 NEWS

Mr Little said officials are investigating the conviction’s place in both the United Kingdom’s and Canada’s criminal law, and that at this stage, their use in both jurisdictions has been reviewed as successful.

Mr Little said he has been supportive of the charge becoming part of New Zealand’s law for several years and a report is being worked on at the moment, which will be returned to the minister with a draft of the legislation.

The charge means a company or group of people can be held accountable for the death of a person due to gross negligence.

Last year, UK police announced it suspected it had reasonable grounds to use the charge in the case of the Grenfell Tower fire in London in June 2017, which left 71 people dead.

It comes as Maan Alkaisi, husband of CTV building collapse victim Maysoon Abbas, is calling for this Government to act urgently to introduce the law.

Returning to the CTV site today, he told 1 NEWS that the families of the 115 people that died when the building collapsed in the February 2011 Christchurch Earthquake feel there’s been no justice or accountability for what happened.

No charges were laid after the police investigation ended last year.

"There is still a lot of gaps in our legal system. People can get away with murder and we have really to do something about it," he said.

"We know why this building collapsed, we know who is responsible, we know all the details, and yet no action's been taken – we feel that’s unfair."

Mr Alkaisi said the families had worked with a law firm to investigate the case for corporate manslaughter to be introduced into New Zealand law four years ago, and had since taken their findings to the previous Government, who told them it wasn't a priority.

Director of Victoria University's Centre for Labour, Employment and Work, Dr Stephen Blumenfeld, also wants the law introduced, claiming our justice system still has no serious criminal punishment for work-related deaths at the hands of corporations.

"New Zealand is at the top of the pile when it comes to workplace fatalities, unfortunately," Mr Blumenfeld said.

"We still don't have a corporate manslaughter law so an individual could not really be held accountable for what happened in those cases, which is what was desired with Peter Whittall, the CEO of Pike River and also in the case of the two engineers in the collapse of the CTV building."

He said the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 as well as the Justice Minister's legislation to repeal the 'year and a day' law, under which currently no one can be held criminally responsible for the killing of another more than a year and a day after its cause, does not go far enough in putting accountability on companies.

Health and Safety lawyer Greg Cain disagrees, saying the Health and Safety Act gives a significant level of deterrence already, stating how companies can be fined up to $3mil and individuals can be imprisoned for up to five years.

Mr Blumenfeld said corporate negligence isn't mentioned directly in the Health and Safety Act so punishments in this area are unclear.

Mr Cain said the introduction of tougher health and safety regulations have created paranoia in workforces from schools to major companies, and said further restrictions were likely to have a greater impact.

He said many New Zealand workforces are starting to understand the importance of health and safety rules and are trying to drive change in this area.

"If you suddenly introduce a law that allows individuals to be sent to jail for much longer periods than previously was the case or subjected to unlimited fines, the deterrent effect could be more about people not wanting to become company directors than it could be about stopping them being lazy on health and safety duties," he said.

"Do we also want to encourage people to either not become company directors or spend their days filling out forms in order to try and cover themselves in health and safety terms, which we've got far too much of already, and it’s not driving better outcomes in this area.”

Dr Stephen Blumenfeld argued that there haven't been employment issues where the law is in the place overseas.

Mr Cain said the charge hasn't led to many successful prosecutions in the United Kingdom.

He said it's a difficult charge to prosecute under as it has to be proven there's been a gross departure from a standard of care that caused someone to die and an individual has to be found guilty of manslaughter, and then have that act attributed to the company.

Mr Cain said it was an option for Health and Safety fine limits and imprisonment periods to be extended.

He said one benefit of a corporate manslaughter charge is the attribution of a higher level of seriousness to health and safety offending, rather that incidents just being known as a 'breach.'