Corporate Criminal Liability

Current project status

  • Initiation: Could include discussing scope and terms of reference with lead Government Department
  • Pre-consultation: Could include approaching interest groups and specialists, producing scoping and issues papers, finalising terms of project
  • Consultation: Likely to include consultation events and paper, making provisional proposals for comment
  • Policy development: Will include analysis of consultation responses. Could include further issues papers and consultation on draft Bill
  • Reported: Usually recommendations for law reform but can be advice to government, scoping report or other recommendations

Reviewing the law relating to the criminal liability of non-natural persons, including companies, and providing options for reform. This project is now underway.

Download the discussion paper here.

The problem

The general rule for attributing liability to companies in English and Welsh criminal law is the ‘identification principle’. This states that where a particular mental state is required, only the acts of a senior person representing the company’s “controlling mind and will” can be attributed to the company. In practice, this is limited to a small number of directors and senior managers.

There are some exceptions to this principle, such as ‘regulatory offences’ and strict liability offences in which no particular mental state is required (although in this latter case, the question of whose actions the company should be liable for remains). In addition, there have been some specific offences created by Parliament which seek to avoid the problems associated with the identification principle by criminalising the “failure to prevent” other offences, such as bribery or tax evasion. The offence of corporate manslaughter was introduced in 2007 to provide a wider basis on which to attribute criminal responsibility to a company for deaths resulting from negligence.

Other jurisdictions such as the United States use different legal principles to establish whether a company is criminally liable for criminal conduct with which it is associated.

In recent years, concern has been expressed that the identification principle does not adequately deal with misconduct carried out by and on behalf of companies (and other ‘non-natural persons’). In particular, some have suggested that it has proved disproportionately difficult to prosecute large companies such as banks for economic crimes committed in their names, by senior managers, for the company’s benefit. In practice, it can be much easier to hold a small company to account for wrongdoing than a large business where responsibility for decision-making is more diffuse. It is a fundamental principle of justice that everyone is equal under the law, and the impression that large companies are immune from the criminal law is liable to undermine respect for the rule of law.

As a result, it can be hard to prosecute a company for serious crimes, even where the commission of criminal offences by employees is incentivised or tolerated by the company.  For example, in the aftermath of the ‘phone hacking’ scandal of in 2011, several journalists were convicted of offences related to widespread ‘phone-hacking’ in the last decade, and their publishers were held liable (or accepted liability) under civil law, yet no prosecutions were brought against them as companies.

There are competing concerns, however, that alternative models for assessing the criminal liability of corporations may place a disproportionate and costly compliance burden on law abiding businesses.

Public trust in the law and in business is likely to be damaged when firms cannot be prosecuted for criminal offences carried out in their name and from which they would or have benefited. Likewise, the law must operate in a proportionate way and not place unnecessary costs on legitimate businesses.

The project

In 2017 the Ministry of Justice published a Call for Evidence on Corporate Liability for Economic Crime. The evidence submitted to the Call for Evidence was considered inconclusive by Government. There was no clear consensus from respondents on what corporate liability offence should be created if the identification doctrine was replaced. Equally, some responses disclosed significant opposition to reform while others questioned whether there was a need for further criminal sanctions at all in the already heavily regulated financial services sector.

In November 2020, therefore, the Government asked the Law Commission to examine the issue and publish a paper providing an assessment of different options for reform. The project will be overseen by Professor Penney Lewis, Commissioner for criminal law, and Professor Sarah Green, Commissioner for commercial and common law.

Terms of reference

The following terms of reference were agreed with the Ministry of Justice, the Home Office, HM Treasury, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and the Attorney General’s Office:

To review the law relating to the criminal liability of non-natural persons, including companies and limited liability partnerships. In particular, to consider:

  1. whether the ‘identification doctrine’ is fit for purpose, when applied to organisations of differing sizes and scales of operation;
  2.  the relationship between criminal and civil law on corporate liability;
  3. other ways in which criminal liability can be imposed on non-natural persons in the current criminal law of England and Wales;
  4. the relationship between corporate criminal liability and other approaches to unlawful conduct by non-natural persons, including deferred prosecution agreements and civil recovery of proceeds of unlawful conduct;
  5. approaches to criminal liability taken in relevant overseas jurisdictions;
  6. whether an alternative approach to corporate liability for crimes could be provided in legislation; and
  7. the implications of any change to the liability of non-natural persons for the liability of directors and senior managers (including under ‘consent or connivance’ provisions, such as those in s. 92 of the Money Laundering, Terrorist Financing and Transfer of Funds (Information on the Payer) Regulations 2017.

With reference to the options for corporate criminal liability in general, to consider what additional provision for particular offences, including economic crimes, may be necessary and to set out the options for reform.

To consult with relevant government and external stakeholders

To ensure that any recommendations comply with, and are conceptually informed by, human rights obligations, including under the European Convention on Human Rights.

To ensure that any recommendations are supported by an analysis of the impact they will have on non-natural persons

The Terms of Reference for the project can be viewed here.

Consultation events

As part of our programme of consultation, the Commission co-hosted a series of webinars in association with legal stakeholders to discuss aspects of reform.


Wednesday 9th June 4.30pm – 5.30pm: Hebert Smith Freehills LLP: Launch event

Click here to watch a recording of the event


Brian Spiro


Lisa Osofsky, Director of the Serious Fraud Office

Lord Edward Garnier QC

Richard Lissack QC

Alison Pople QC

Susannah Cogman


Wednesday 16th June 4.30pm – 5.30pm: 6 KBW College Hill chambers: reforming the identification principle

There is no recording of this event


Stephen Pollard
WilmerHale LLP


Sir David Green CB QC
Slaughter and May LLP

Miranda Hill
6 KBW College Hill

Dr Susan Hawley
Spotlight on Corruption

Katherine Hardcastle
6 KBW College Hill


Wednesday 23rd June 4.30pm – 5.30pm: QEB Hollis Whiteman chambers: a new failure to prevent economic crime offence?

Click here to watch a recording of the event


Ben FitzGerald
Barrister, QEB Hollis Whiteman


Andrew Penhale
Head of Specialist Fraud Division, Crown Prosecution Service

John Harrison
Group General Counsel, Airbus

Prof. Jeremy Horder
London School of Economics, Law Commissioner 2005-10

Stephen Gentle
Partner and Head of Crime, Simmons & Simmons

Due to connection problems, part of the prepared remarks of Andrew Penhale on Tuesday were unintelligible. Apologies to our guests. A copy of the prepared remarks is available here.


Thursday 1st July 4.30pm – 5.30pm: Institute of Advanced Legal Studies: what can we learn from the approach of other jurisdictions?

Click here to watch a recording of the event


Barnaby Hone
St Andrew’s Hill chambers


Mayling Blanco
Norton Rose Fulbright USA

Dr Robin Lööf
Fountain Court chambers

Dr Lorenzo Pasculli
Coventry University

Professor Jennifer Quaid
University of Ottawa


Wednesday 7th July 4.30pm – 5.30pm: 7 Bedford Row chambers & Clifford Chance LLP: deferred prosecution agreements: a vehicle for corporate justice?

Click here to watch a recording of the event


Andrew Wheeler QC – Barrister, 7BR


Christopher David – Director, White Collar Crime, Clifford Chance
Alex Young – Barrister, 7BR

Michael Lyons – Partner, Clifford Chance
Alex Jayne – Senior Lawyer, Serious Fraud Office


Wednesday 14th July 4.30pm – 5.30pm: Eversheds Sutherland LLP: should wider corporate criminality be a matter for the civil courts?

Click here to watch a recording of the event


Sarah Clarke QC, Serjeant’s Inn

Greg Brandman, Partner, Litigation and Dispute Management Team, Eversheds Sutherland

Robin Barclay QC, Fountain Court

David Flack, Partner, Financial Services Disputes and Investigations Team, Eversheds Sutherland

Tuesday 20th July 4.30pm – 5.30pm: 33 Chancery Lane chambers & Kingsley Napley LLP: other options, the Modern Slavery Act approach, conclusions

Click here to watch a recording of the event


Max Hill QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions

Amanda Pinto QC, 33 Chancery Lane

Martin Evans QC, 33 Chancery Lane

Katherine Tyler, Partner, Kingsley Napley

Next steps

We are now analysing the responses to our consultation, which will inform the development of our options paper. We are aiming to publish this in early 2022.

Contact us 

If you have any questions or comments, you can contact the team:

By email to (marked for the attention of the CCL team)


By post to The corporate criminal liability project, the criminal team, Law Commission, 1st Floor, Tower, 52 Queen Anne’s Gate, London, SW1H 9AG.

Project details

Area of law

Criminal law


Professor Penney Lewis