How Can I Bring a Criminal Case Against a Business?

If a business has abused your human rights, they may have committed a crime (i.e. broken criminal law). In these cases, it may be possible to bring a criminal case against a business OR individuals in the business.

Consider the following questions if you’re interested in bringing a criminal case:

Action4Justice - Criminal Case Checklist

Has a Crime Been Committed?

For a criminal case to be brought, a crime must have been committed.

A crime is committed when the actions of an individual or a business break a criminal law.

  • You can usually find the criminal laws of your country in the criminal or penal code.

Common crimes include killing, rape, torture, theft of your property, slavery, human trafficking, corruption, physical assault and some harms to the environment.

Very serious human rights abuses committed by businesses are usually also crimes. But they won’t be called “human rights abuses” in criminal law.

Example: Ford Torture Case (Argentina)
In 2002, a criminal complaint was filed against executives of Ford Motor Argentina (Ford) alleging that the company and its executives were complicit in human rights abuses suffered by Ford employees and union organisers during the military dictatorship in Argentina.

In 2013, three former Ford executives were accused of providing information to security forces which led to the victims being tortured and charged for crimes against humanity. In 2018, two surviving executives were convicted for the abduction and torture of 24 workers and given a prison sentence.

If you think that a crime may have been committed, think about bringing a criminal case.


Who Could I Bring a Criminal Case Against?

To bring a criminal case, there has to be a defendant. This is the person or business that is responsible and will be punished for committing a crime.

  • The specific defendant does not have to be identified immediately (the police can do this during their investigation, see below).

But, it’s still important to know the types of businesses and people in a business that a criminal case could be brought against.

(a) Criminal Cases Against Individuals

Criminal cases are usually brought against individuals. A criminal case can be brought against any individual in a business that has:

  • Directly committed the crime
  • Ordered the crime to be committed
  • Assisted someone else in committing the crime
  • Planned the crime

It will often be the case that employees or contractors of a business are directly responsible for committing a crime (e.g. the person that physically harmed or assaulted someone).

People high up in a business could be responsible for committing a crime. This could involve directors, executives or managers in a business:

  • Directors are the people responsible for the strategic decisions of the company. They constitute the company’s board of directors.
  • Managers carry out the day-to-day administration of the company under the general direction of the directors.

When directors, managers or executives commit crimes, it’s usually by ordering an employee to commit a crime, knowingly profiting from or assisting or planning a crime.

Example: Kozee Sleep – Slavery Case
In this case the director of Kozee Sleep, a company that supplied beds for major UK retailers, was convicted of human trafficking offences under the Modern Slavery Act 2015 for employing trafficked Hungarian workers under conditions of modern slavery. He was sentenced to 27 months in jail.

There can be more than one defendant. If more than one person is involved in the commission of a crime, a criminal case can be brought against everyone involved.

(b) Corporate Criminal Liability

In some countries, it is possible to hold a business directly accountable under criminal law. This is called “corporate criminal liability”. This can be done alongside holding individuals accountable.

Example: Lafarge (France)
In June 2018, TNC cement company Lafarge was indicted on charges of complicity in crimes against humanity, financing of a terrorist enterprise, and endangering people’s lives.

The company’s former executives, including two former CEOs, have been charged with criminal offenses relating to the company’s operations in Syria during the period of ongoing civil war.


Have You Collected Evidence?

Although law enforcement authorities are responsible for bringing criminal cases (see below), the more evidence you can provide to police and prosecutors that a crime has been committed by the business, the more likely they are to start an investigation.

Consider the following questions:

Key Considerations:
You will need to have evidence that shows:

  1. What: What was the nature of the harm (e.g. pollution or physical injury)?
  2. Where: Where did the harm take place (e.g. the town, river, region)?
  3. When: When did the harm occur, or is it still happening?
  4. How: How was the harm caused?
  5. Who: What businesses or individuals were involved in the activity that caused the harm?

Examples of the type of evidence you might need are:

  • Medical records of physical injury or harm to your health
  • Environmental evidence (e.g. samples of polluted water)
  • Before/after photos of a person or area
  • Videos of events taking place
  • NGO/government/UN reports on a general issue that your case is part of

Key Resource: The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre Checklist
The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre has a checklist to help communities document corporate human rights abuses.

For more information on gathering evidence, see “How Can I Gather Evidence?


How Do I Start a Criminal Case?

Check out the infographic below to find out how to start a criminal case and what procedure you have to follow.


What Happens if You Win a Criminal Case?

If the police conduct an investigation and the prosecutors bring a successful case, the criminal court could:

(a) Put the responsible individuals in prison

Example: Ford Torture Case
In the Ford lawsuit (see above), two of the surviving former Ford executives were imprisoned for the abduction and torture of 24 workers.

(b) Force the individual or business to pay a fine

Example: Bhopal Case (India)
Following the Bhopal disaster, a criminal case was brought in India against Union Carbide India and its former chief executive officer in 1989.

In 2010, a court in India found Union Carbide and seven company executives guilty of criminal negligence. The company was required to pay a fine and the individuals were sentenced to two years in prison and fined.

(c) Order the Individual or Business to Do Something to Remedy the Crimes They Have Committed

In some countries, it is also possible for victims to claim for compensation when a successful criminal case has been brought.

But, the purpose of criminal cases is not to pay victims compensation. If this is your main objective, other types of claims may be better.

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