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Lawyers call for faster inquiry system to avoid tragedies
The Times 07 Oct 99

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All roads lead to Ladbroke Grove

Ray State : Thursday, October 07, 1999
"In this world God takes the good and the bad with an even hand. But when it comes to accidents why does God only visit these on those organisations with sloppy and irregular practices?"
In the talk about Automatic Train Protection the combination of other events and actions taken by unconnected groups which conspired to make Ladbroke Grove inevitable must not be forgotten.

The events start as long ago as 6th March 1987. On this day a Zeebrugge ferry the Herald of Free Enterprise rolled over and sank taking the lives of 192 people. The subsequent prosecution of the owners of the ferry failed on the important point that no single person could be found responsible for all the mistakes which combined to cause the sinking. Pressure by the Herald Charitable Trust on behalf of the Herald Families Association for a change in the law to make companies corporately responsible was at first resisted but following other disasters such as the Marchioness the Law Commission set up study and reported in 1996. This report Legislating the Criminal Code Involuntary Manslaughter Law Com no 237 was intended to set the framework by which a Corporation could be prosecuted on a criminal charge for an event which killed someone where it could be proved that the Corporation collectively were negligent. It was a very thorough work and even contained a draft bill.

However, no action was taken by the Government of the time to turn this into law. In the absence of a suitable framework no prosecution of a Corporation was possible unless it could be established that an individual was responsible for all the action involved in the loss of life. A successful prosecution on this basis was achieved in the case of the Lyme Bay tragedy when a number of teenagers were killed in a canoeing accident. This was successful only because the Company was owned and managed by one person.

In 1997, therefore, at the time of the Southall accident on the 19th September, the state of the law was that no criminal prosecution against a Company could possibly succeed. It was still possible to conduct a civil action for compensation and prosecute for failures under the Health and Safety at Work legislation but neither of these were criminal actions. This was widely known.

Following accident at Southall, the Crown Prosecution Service supported by the Police started criminal proceeding against GWT. This never had a chance of success. On the 30th June 1999 Justice Scott-Baker in a landmark ruling said that to proceed with the case was unsafe and that the charges should be withdrawn and added:

"Judges interpret the law. Parliament, makes the laws which we interpret. Following the Herald of Free Enterprise Disaster the Law Commission issued report No 237 on the strengthening of the laws concerning corporate responsibility. The recommendations were that the laws concerning corporate negligence should be strengthened and addressed by Parliament. This request has gone unheeded for more than 3 years. Until the laws are changed Judges hands are tied"
Whilst the judiciary was coming to this profound conclusion which was blindingly obvious, the Southall Inquiry was in limbo. This meant that no conclusions and recommendations could be produced apart from the ones concerning the operation of the AWS system. In addition, it is now apparent that general signal sighting problem resolution hung on these recommendations.

It is most likely that had the Inquiry not been delayed the findings would have initiated action which could have led to a review of similar signals whose sighting was less than satisfactory and a tightening of the reviews of Signals Passed at Danger incidents.

Such a review would have reduced the likelihood of Ladbroke Grove occurring.

It is interesting to note that lack of action on behalf of Parliament to act on the Law Commission recommendations and the doomed venture of the Crown Prosecution Service in no small way conspired to ensure that the Ladbroke Grove became possible.

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This file last updated: Saturday, 09-Oct-1999 19:48:11 EDT
Copyright © David Fry 1999

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