Should the over-riding of a jury’s remit by a judge be justified to determine facts of a case for ‘significant’ public policy interest reasons?

A man was found guilty of gross negligence manslaughter by a jury in 2004.  The jury were directed by a single judge that the defendant had a duty of care towards the deceased man, a father of several children, as the defendant was the owner of the property.  With the aid of forensic investigation, evidence was uncovered that both men had splashed petrol around the property with the intention of burning it.    The defendant was in considerable debt, the property derelict and the business he ran in it had failed.  He had been unable to secure planning permission to redevelop the building because the façade was listed.  Unexpected ignition of the petrol from a cigarette caused an explosion and the deceased was killed by the collapsing building.  The defendant was just outside the property and only slightly injured.  The property fronted immediately on to the public pavement.  coincidentally no one was passing by at that moment.

The defendant was granted leave to appeal to the charge as the judge was said to have improperly directed the jury that a duty of care existed towards the deceased.  The five principles to establish a duty of care are: the foreseeability of harm, the relationship/proximity between the people involved, the fair, just and reasonableness of the activity concerned.  The jury should have been allowed to determine if a duty of care existed, if so that it had been breached and that it had caused or contributed to the death.  The Court of Appeal held the judgment despite a duty of care not being established.  They determined that the jury would have found him guilty as his actions were deliberate for financial gain and of a reckless nature.  It was deemed by the appellate court to be an exceptional case considering its recklessness and not just a civil unlawful manslaughter case.  In the interest of the public the charge had to be seen to be suitably disciplinary.

The outcome of the case was deemed to have altered the balance of the judicial and jury relationship in favour of the judicial decision in order to give a clear authoritative signal as to the consequence of causing harm by such reckless behaviour and for personal financial gain.  The criterion for gross negligence manslaughter were clarified by the case of an anaesthetist who did not notice that the artificial ventilation for the patient had come loose.  Several minutes passed before the error was noticed and the patient died as a result.  Was a similar charge commensurate for the death of the deceased even though he was an accomplice?  Was the harm caused equal to that of a doctor killing (by omission) a patient?  Was justice served for the public interest by handing down a prison sentence of 12 years?  Could a custodial sentence be considered to give justice to the deceased and his family?


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