The debate about how a "just culture" that protects internal voluntary safety reporting could fruitfully exist alongside a seemingly ravening, prosecution-hungry judiciary is maturing. This is happening despite - or maybe because of - the fact that the automatic criminalisation of air accidents is a globally growing trend.

The Royal Aeronautical Society's London headquarters last week hosted a conference with a formidable agenda: "The Proposed EU Regulation on Air Accident Investigation; the Criminalisation of Air Accidents and the Just Culture". Accident investigation and the judiciary have, in most countries, apparently incompatible objectives, and the judiciary has the greater power. In fact they could play complementary roles and still carry out their different functions - respectively, future accident prevention and the administration of justice.

The evolving argument is that, rather than claiming unique legal privileges for itself - which it is manifestly failing to win - the aviation industry should team with aviation legal specialists and lobby to bring some balance to the way in which accident investigators and the judiciary interface following an air accident. At the same time, regulations governing operations need to be considerably simplified and globally standardised. Both these objectives should be achieved through the forum of the International Civil Aviation Organisation.

Paris-based aviation lawyer Simon Foreman provided an national example of the kind of systemic imperfection that leads the total system to behave as it does after an accident. The judiciary in France, he explained, is the only part of the system capable of examining what happened on behalf of the families of the victims, who feel wronged. In the UK, he pointed out, the coroner's court does that, but France does not have an alternative to the criminal court.

Meanwhile, Foreman sees an opportunity to correct one of the manifestly counterproductive aspects of the French post-accident system. Under the European Commission's proposed legislation on future EU accident investigation, as currently drafted, if the judiciary were to want to take charge of evidence from a crash site, depriving the investigators of it, they would be compelled to justify their action. At present they don't have to. But the new rules also make redundant one of the roles the courts fulfil now: investigators will be required to take account of the rights of victims, especially their right to information. Most victims do not seek retribution, they want transparency and compensation.

Source: Flight International