logo slogan
Phaedsys Logo

MTE Logo


Software developers warned about corporate killing Law
July 2003

By Chris Hills

Chris Hills


Software Engineers have had their attention drawn to the proposals for a government Bill on Corporate Killing and particularly its implication for sub-contractors and those working for smaller companies.

Speaking at the lEE Seminar on Developing Embedded Real-Time Systems, sponsored by Phaedrus Systems, and held at the Brunei Gallery in London on May 22nd, Technical Specialist Chris Hills of Phaedrus Systems, went on to mention the proposals for the new law, after he pointed out that he was not a lawyer or legally qualified, that developers should take serious note of the proposals now.The changes to the Involuntary Manslaughter Act are being introduced so that companies can be taken to court when something they are involved with causes a death. It appears the intention is a fine rather than prison sentence for directors as was suggested originally but is still in the balance as of June 2003.

So why was Chris so worried about the proposed changes? The examples shown in the proposals state that it will not require direct a single act by a single person to prove manslaughter but comes back to the way in which the company was run. This Chris thought would require a lower level of proof compared to current manslaughter cases. In large companies this protects the programmers who are working to silly deadlines with poor specs, insufficient testing and tools etc. They will not be held to blame if they did the best they could under the circumstances. For example the deck hand who did not properly close the door on the Herald of Free Enterprise was not charged with manslaughter. The proposals appear to recognise that as an employee you can’t always take the moral high ground when you have a family to feed. This is the good side.

It was the other side of it Chris was worried about. Knowing how legislation can get twisted (IR35 and section 660 etc) the proposals could be very dangerous for small firms and sub-contractors. The larger companies who sub contract will have cast iron contracts for the things they subcontract so that they will pass the blame down to component suppliers. Eventually it will end up with the small companies or even sub contractors where the engineer is often the owner. Chris suggested that like the Inland Revenue with IR35 the CPS would look for cases it can win.

The small sub-component companies will have to show that they were run properly. In other words that they were using proper project control, specifications, tools, methods, testing or “Best Practice”. When it was pointed out that Chris works for Phaedrus Systems a tools vendor and might have a vested interest in saying this his reply was: Tools such as version control (rcs) and GNU-lint can be had for free and test plans, specifications etc only needed pen and paper. Coding standards and style guides abound on the Internet. What is required is a professional embedded development environment not necessarily a lot of expensive tools. Many of the tools only automate processes that can be done manually.

When asked why he had been making such a fuss about proposals that would not make it on to the statute books for another year or so Chris explained another subtle point. The Act will not be retrospective and will only affect accidents after the bill is enacted. He used the example of a car that kills people in an accident in 2005 where it is suspected the embedded system caused the problem. If the car is a year old the software may have been produced a year before. IE 2002 or 2003. Therefore the courts could be looking at embedded software that was produced this year (or even earlier).

Chris then asked the audience: Would you feel comfortable with an external audit of your embedded development environment on your current project if there was a manslaughter charge pending at the end of it? This could happen in a couple of years to the project you are working on now.

Chris Hills reiterated the point that he had no legal qualifications and this was simply his personal view and suggested that people look at the corporate manslaughter proposals at http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/docs/invmans.pdf and seek any legal advice themselves. In any event tightening up the development process would have a beneficial effect for all concerned with or without this new law.


Author Details and contact


Eur Ing Chris Hills BSc CEng MIET MBCS MIEEE  FRGS   FRSA is a Technical Specialist and can be reached at This Contact


Copyright Chris A Hills  2003 -2008
The right of Chris A Hills to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988