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Rail crash manslaughter charges dropped
BBC Online 02 Jul 99

Southall rail crash manslaughter charges dropped
ITN 02 Jul 99

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Southall: Driver & GWT not guilty of Manslaughter
Full details of the verdicts

from our Safety Correspondent : Friday, July 02, 1999
At a hearing at the Old Bailey on Friday July 2 1999, the driver of a high speed train that collided with a freight train has been found not guilty of manslaughter. His employer, Great Western Trains was also found not guilty of similar charges.

At the hearing, the charges were read out before the judge, Mr Justice Scott-Baker in a packed court:

Great Western Trains

Counts 1 to 7 in respect of each of the persons killed: That GWT permitted a train to go forward in an unsafe condition in that the ATP system was not working and the AWS isolated and that they failed to either turn the train or ensure a competent second person was present in the cab.
Plea on all counts – Not Guilty

Count 8: That GWT failed to take care of the passengers under the terms of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.
Plea – Not Guilty

Driver Harrison

Counts 9 to 15 in respect of each of the persons killed: That the driver drove the train in a negligent manner which resulted in the accident and subsequent deaths.
Plea on all counts – Not Guilty

Count 16: That the driver failed to take care of the passengers under the terms of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.
Plea – Not Guilty

Counsel for the Crown Prosecutor rose to respond to the Judge's ruling of the 30th June. He drew attention to the statement relating to the laws concerning corporate manslaughter particularly:

"There are many who say the state of the law is unsatisfactory in relation to corporate manslaughter. This is the responsibility of Parliament which has failed to act on the Law Commission's report 237. In light of the weaknesses in the law and the clear ruling of the Judge the Crown Prosecutor has decided to ask the Attorney General to address the matter of the lack of suitable laws pertaining to corporate responsibility."

He went on to detail the prosecution's position in the light of the above.

The Crown Prosecutor intends to proceed as follows, taking into account the certain important factors. These factors include:
  • The powers of the court in respect of count 8 are identical to that for counts 1 to 7. That is an unlimited fine.
  • The case has been in preparation for 21 months and the date for the HSE Inquiry has been set for the 20th September 1999. The questions on why and how the accident occurred are best served by the Inquiry rather than a prolonged trial.
  • The need to relieve Mr. Harrison of any more distress is vital.
As a result the Crown Prosecution is to offer no evidence in respect of counts 1 to 7. This is on the understanding that GWT will change their plea to Guilty for count 8.

In respect of Driver Harrison, he is 57 with 40 years service in the railway. Up to the time of the accident he had an unblemished record. He was sent out with a defective train to run at speeds up to 125mph. The burden of responsibility is immense. Had he seen the colour of the signals then he would have stopped. He did not do so and this was a terrible mistake. We have a medical report which indicates that his psychological state means that it is doubtful that he could stand a protracted trial.

The prosecution's opinion is that the situation of the driver underlines the failure of GWT. In consequence the prosecution intends to offer no evidence in relation to counts 9 to 15.

In respect of count 16 it not in the public interest, for the reasons stated, to take this case through a trial which may last as long as six weeks. This poor man is unemployed and unemployable. It is therefore the prosecutions intention to leave the charge on file. (This means that the charge is not proven and can be opened again if new evidence came to light).
The counsel for GWT then rose. He was adamant that the prosecution's attempt to press criminal manslaughter charges was inappropriate in law and that a Director could not be prosecuted unless he personally directed the action which was negligent.

He confirmed that GWT will enter a plea of Guilty in respect of count 8. He said there were limiting circumstances which would be tabled at the time of sentencing.

Count 8 was re-submitted and GWT pleaded Guilty.

The Crown Prosecutor objected to any limiting circumstances in the sentence but agreed to look at the defense's arguments when submitted.

The Judge asked for details of similar fines from other cases and a statement of company accounts.

Sentencing will be on a date in July.

The Counsel for Driver Harrison rose and argued that to place count 16 on file was unfair to the defendant and pressed for a Not Guilty verdict. The arguments for this were that he was given a defective train to drive. Expert witnesses had provided evidence about:

  • The increase in risk by the operation of HST sets without AWS which placed an undue burden on the driver.
  • Changes in working practices which created confusion
  • The importance of AWS in providing audible and visual reminders of signal aspects
  • The poor siting of two of the signals
  • Confirmation of the siting problems by physical tests
The prosecution had not been able to refute these conclusions. As a result Driver Harrison could be seen too as victim. He referred to the HSE circular letter of the 30th September 1999 reminding TOC's (Train Operating Companies) not to take liberties with the interpretation of the rules concerning operation with AWS isolated. He was of the opinion that had this gone out sooner then the accident may have been avoided.

The Judge agreed with the counsel for the defence and the driver was found Not Guilty in respect of count 16. The Judge remarked that he had not seen the medical evidence concerning Driver Harrison, nor had the defence.

At this point the counsel for the defence asked for the driver to be discharged and this was agreed.

The court rose after sitting for 1hr and 10mins.

Sentencing of GWT on count 8 will be before the end of July and the HSE Inquiry will start on 20th September 1999 two years and one day after the accident.

This will be a landmark case. Following on behind the Herald of Free Enterprise and the Marchioness cases and the clear failure to act on the recommendations of the Law Commission's report 237, the Attorney General will have to consider placing legislation before Parliament. It will be interesting to look for this in the Queens Speech in the Autumn.



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