Criminal and Civil Liability
When an employer is found to be liable for an accident in the workplace their liability will be divided into two different types. These are criminal liability and civil liability, and they both carry penalties of different types.
Criminal liability occurs when an employer is found to have abrogated their statutory responsibilities. The term also refers to those penalties that may apply that can only be imposed by criminal courts. These might include imprisonment.
Types of CourtCases in which criminal liability is alleged are heard in one or more of six different types of criminal court. In the first instance, less serious offences are heard in magistrates’ courts. This constitutes the majority of cases. Potentially more serious cases are heard in Crown Courts. If an appeal process begins, cases may also be heard on appeal in the High Court. After this the case may go to the Court of Appeal, and finally to the highest judicial appeals body in the country – the House of Lords. However, appeals for minor health and safety offences are infrequent. This is in great part because the most common penalty imposed by a magistrates’ court is a fine, and it is generally in the employer’s interests to simply pay this and be done with it.
Criminal LiabilityThere are a number of different types of statutory criminal liability. This sort of liability can be absolute; practicable; or reasonably practicable. The fist of these is said to be the case when injury, accident or death is considered inevitable as a result of the employer’s failure to take the necessary safety precautions. It should be noted that absolute requirements are not subject to defences of impossibility or lack of commercial viability; suggesting that it was impossible to take the necessary precautions, or that they would have meant the destruction of a piece of equipment’s commercial use, is not a defence. Practicable requirements are obligations that must be fulfilled if they are deemed to be feasible and practicable. Cost and inconvenience are irrelevant; if it is feasible to carry out the necessary action then it must be done. Finally, reasonably practicable requirements must be carried out, self-evidently, as far as is ‘reasonably practicable’. This means that if the advantage of fulfilling the requirement, once cost and inconvenience has been considered, is minimal, then it is not necessary. In any other cases, however, it must be fulfilled.
Civil LiabilityCivil liability, on the other hand, refers solely to the penalty that can be imposed by a civil court, whether that is a court of ‘first instance’ or a court of appeal. Civil liability does not carry a potential prison sentence or remedial order, but instead will lead to awards of damages in the case of occupationally related injury, disease, or death. Civil liability is said to have occurred when the injury, disease or death occurred as a result of an abrogation of responsibilities under common or statute law, and when it has occurred as a result of the sufferer’s employment.
Generally, employers are required to take out insurance against civil liability. This is covered in more detail in an article elsewhere on this site.