Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence


Supplementary memorandum submitted by HM Treasury


  The Public Accounts Committee asked HM Treasury for a note on the Government's policy towards the Crown's immunity from prosecution in the context of the tragic fatality at the Royal Mint (on which the Mint have submitted a separate note).

What is "Crown immunity"?

  Crown immunity means that emanations of the Crown are not susceptible to prosecution for offences either created by statute or of the common law. It is more difficult to define precisely what is meant by an "emanation of the Crown", but it is clear that ministers and their departments are included. Crown immunity is today primarily an issue of the criminal law. The Crown Proceedings Act 1947 substantially reduced the Crown's immunity from civil proceedings.

  It is important to be clear about what Crown immunity does not protect the executive from. It does not afford any protection from investigation, for example by the Health and Safety Executive in the Royal Mint context. In the case of legislation relating to food and health and safety, the law applies to the Crown, but the Crown cannot be prosecuted under it. Instead a system of Crown censure and Crown notices is used, publicising the inspectors' findings. The HSE investigation into the Mint resulted in Crown censure. Crown immunity also does not grant protection to individuals from prosecution. In the Mint case, a thorough investigation by Police and HSE concluded that no Director or Manager could be prosecuted. Crown immunity also does not give protection from a civil claim. In this particular case the Mint has already written to the representatives of the deceased to confirm admission of liability and asking them to provide details of the quantum of their claim (a schedule of dependency).

Future policy on Crown immunity

  The Government's position on Crown immunity remains as set out by Lord Falconer in his response from a Parliamentary Question laid by Lord Kennet, given on 4 November 1999. The Crown's immunity from criminal prosecution has been eroded in certain specific areas. The 1988 Road Traffic Offenders Act introduced a system of "nominated defendants" for the Crown who could be prosecuted and fined on behalf of the Crown. The Food Safety Act 1990 stops short of criminal liability but permits the Court to declare acts or omissions of the Crown as unlawful. Similar provisions appear in the Environmental Protection Act 1990, the Environment Act 1995, the Chemical Weapons Act 1996 and the Transport Act 2000. In an alternative approach, National Health Service authorities as Crown corporate bodies were immune from prosecution. This immunity has been removed in stages since the mid-1980s.

  The Government has recently given consideration to the general issue of the state's immunity from criminal proceedings. Recent consultation papers (on corporate killing and health and safety) have proposed modifications of immunity. In the light of responses to that consultation, officials have analysed the options and advice is to be put to Ministers.

HM Treasury

December 2002

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