Negligent employers and managers in England and Wales who blatantly disregard employee safety could be sentenced to up to 18 years in prison under new court guidelines.

The guidelines, which will come into force on 1 November, mark the first time the Sentencing Council has provided instructions to courts on how to deal with offenders convicted of gross negligence manslaughter.

They identify factors that would make the offence particularly serious. An individual’s culpability would be put at the highest level for a longstanding and serious disregard for the safety of employees, motivated by financial gain (or avoidance of cost), warranting a prison sentence between ten and 18 years (see table).

Evidence that the negligent conduct persisted for a long period of time will result in a jail sentence between six and 12 years under the new guidelines. If the offender’s culpability is deemed to be a lapse in otherwise satisfactory standards of care, the jail term will be in the range of one to four years.

Aggravating factors include previous convictions, an offender ignoring earlier warnings or putting others at risk of harm, or involving others through coercion, intimidation or exploitation.

Mitigating features are a lack of previous convictions, attempts to assist the victim, co-operation with the enforcing authority’s investigation, that the offender was stressed or pressured, or, for reasons beyond their control, they lacked the necessary equipment, training or knowledge which contributed to the negligent conduct.

The guidelines also apply to unlawful act manslaughter, manslaughter due to loss of control and manslaughter due to diminished responsibility.

The Sentencing Council said: “Overall the guideline is unlikely to change sentence levels but it is expected that in some gross negligence cases sentences will increase. Current sentencing practice in these sorts of cases is lower in the context of overall sentence levels for manslaughter than for other types.”

The council, an independent body responsible for developing sentencing guidelines for the courts in England and Wales, consulted on draft guidelines for these offences between July and October 2017. The definitive guidelines apply to all offenders aged 18 and over.

Lord Justice Holroyde, a member of the Sentencing Council, said: “Manslaughter offences vary hugely – some cases are not far from being an accident, while others may be just short of murder. While no sentence can make up for the loss of life, this guideline will help ensure sentencing that properly reflects the culpability of the offender and the unique facts of each case.”

Starting point and category range for a single offence of manslaughter resulting in a single fatality

Culpability: A B C D
Starting point: 12 years’ custody 8 years’ custody 4 years’ custody 2 years’ custody
Category range: 10-18 years’ custody 6-12 years’ custody 3-7 years’ custody 1-4 years’ custody