New guidelines expected to increase prison sentence lengths for gross negligence manslaughter

Posted on: 07 August 2018

For the first time, specific sentencing guidelines have been published for English and Welsh courts dealing with cases of unlawful act manslaughter, gross negligence manslaughter, manslaughter by reason of loss of control and manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility.

The guidelines will be used for sentences imposed from 1 November 2018, but are retrospective in that they will apply to existing cases that have not concluded before that date.

Gross negligence manslaughter occurs when the offender is in breach of a duty of care towards the victim, whose death came as a consequence of that breach, and it’s deemed a criminal act (or failure to act) has therefore been committed.

The charge can be brought for a wide range of scenarios, including workplace fatalities following a health and safety breach. For example, it could cover an employer who completely disregards the safety of their employees.

There are four levels of culpability, from ‘low’ to ‘very high’, each of which leads to a different starting point jail term. The starting points are 12 years, 8 years, 4 years and 2 years for culpabilities of ‘very high’, ‘high’, ‘medium’ and ‘lower’, respectively. Other factors can then be taken into account to move the sentence to within a specified range around each starting point. For example, the ‘very high’ range is 10 to 18 years and a judge can move up the range where defined aggravating factors are identified, such as more than one person put at risk or previous warnings ignored.

The Sentencing Council expects the new guidelines will increase the average length of sentences handed down for some gross negligence manslaughter cases:

"Overall, the guideline is unlikely to change sentence levels but it is expected that in some gross negligence cases sentences will increase. This could be in situations where, for example, an employer’s long-standing and serious disregard for the safety of employees, motivated by cost-cutting, has led to someone being killed. Current sentencing practice in these sorts of cases is lower in the context of overall sentence levels for manslaughter than for other types."[1]

Defining manslaughter

In the UK, manslaughter is defined as murder without premeditation and it is split into two types – voluntary and involuntary. The key differentiator is whether or not there was a motive to murder the victim.

Those convicted of voluntary manslaughter are found to have been motivated to commit an act that killed or caused serious harm to an individual, but only carried it out as a consequence of a loss of control (e.g. as a reaction to extreme stress) or reduced mental capacity.

A verdict of involuntary manslaughter is reached when the defendant doesn’t appear to have had a motive to murder the victim, but is found to be responsible for the cause of death.

In addition to these two types, there is the crime of vehicular manslaughter, where death is caused due to illegal driving.

Charges of manslaughter are further categorised under each type – gross negligence manslaughter is one of four categories of involuntary manslaughter.

Gross negligence manslaughter shouldn’t be confused with corporate manslaughter, which is also a category of involuntary manslaughter but is an offence under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 instead of common law. Corporate manslaughter involves the prosecution of a company or organisation when a fatality is caused by serious management failures resulting in a gross breach of a duty of care, whereas in a gross negligence manslaughter case a person who had a duty of care towards the victim is prosecuted.