23rd March 2017

March Marks the 30th Anniversary of the Herald of Free Enterprise Disaster

Jane Anderson, specialist Regulatory Defence solicitor at Cartwright King considers the impact of the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster and how its echoes still resonate now.

This month marks the 30th anniversary of the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster. By the end of April of the same year, Mr Justice Sheen was appointed the Wreck Commissioner for the formal investigation into the tragedy. The court found that the capsizing of the Herald of Free Enterprise was partly caused or contributed to by serious negligence in the discharge of the duties by some member s of the crew and partly caused or contributed to by the fault of the ship owner’s Townsend Car Ferries Limited. Since this disaster occurred, sweeping changes have been made to both corporate responsibility and the culpability of companies following fatal accidents.

Background information

The report of that formal investigation referred to Townsend Car Ferries Limited “from top to bottom” being infected with a "disease of sloppiness” and that the board of directors amongst others were at fault in the failure of the management of the ships, not appreciating their responsibility for its safe management or properly comprehending what their duties were. 

When the report into the investigation was announced in Parliament by the then transport secretary; Paul Channon, he assured the public no one was immune from prosecution and indeed following the Coroner’s inquest jury’s verdict of unlawful killing and the subsequent police investigation, charges of manslaughter were brought against eight defendants, including the company.

By 1990 the trial collapsed. Mr Justice Turner, although finding that a corporation as well as the person might be found guilty of manslaughter; in this case there lacked the necessary ‘controlling mind’ to prove guilt.

What action has been taken since? 

Legislation followed in the form of The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 to increase the prospect of large and medium companies being found guilty of corporate manslaughter where deaths are caused by management failures as a consequence of a gross breach of a duty of care. The legislation came into force on 6th April 2008 and the first charge was authorised by the CPS just over a year later and a conviction was secured in 2011. Since then the number of charges appear to be slowly but steadily increasing.

The 30th anniversary of the tragedy and the subsequent findings and changes in the legislation will always serve as a reminder to companies and directors of their responsibilities for the health and safety of others. Any “disease of sloppiness” as identified by Mr Justice Sheen will almost certainly result in criminal action against a company and its directors.

If you are concerned that your business will be investigated for negligence or health and safety breaches, please contact Jane Anderson on either 07962 606 598 or


For further information please get in touch with our dedicated team.

You can always call us on 0845 894 1622 or email on


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