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Fighting fire with fines

Even before the tragedy of what happened at Grenfell Tower on 14 June 2017 there could be no doubt that no limit can be put on the personal costs of a fire. The Government has now stated that the same can be said for the financial costs, writes Natalie Puce.

On 17 March 2021 the Home Office announced that building owners could face unlimited fines following new measures being brought in to strengthen fire safety. The fine will be used to punish anyone caught obstructing or impersonating a fire inspector as well as to those who breach fire safety regulations under the Fire Safety Order. The new measures will amend the Fire Safety Order and will include a requirement for fire risk assessments to be recorded for each building and improve how fire safety information is handed over throughout the lifetime of a building.

The new law could lead to a significant increase in financial penalties for breaches. This follows a trend in health and safety cases generally given the steep rise we have seen in fines ordered for breaches of the Health and Safety at Work Act etc. 1974 and associated regulations following the introduction of the Health and Safety Offences, Corporate Manslaughter and Food Safety and Hygiene Regulations Definitive Guidelines (“the Guidelines”) on 1 February 2016. Five years on from the introduction, we can clearly see the impact of the Guidelines which is an unequivocal increase in fines, reported to have gone up by 450%.

Fire safety cases were specifically excluded from the guidelines. The Sentencing Council explained this on the basis that applying the factors in the guideline to offences involving risk of fire had the potential for distorting sentence levels. That said, in the case of R v Sandhu [2017] EWCA Crim 908 the Court of Appeal held that the guidelines provided a useful analogy when sentencing for Fire Safety Order offences to ensure the sentence was not either manifestly excessive or unduly lenient and as such, reference is often made to them in fire safety cases.

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Even before the guidelines and this most recent announcement, there had already been some hefty fines issued for breaches of the Fire Safety Order, the fine ordered to New Look of £400,00 in 2010 being just one example. This followed a fire in the retailer’s Oxford Street store in 2007 as a result of which New Look pleaded guilty to two breaches of the Fire Safety Order (insufficient staff training and storage blocking escape routes).

Given the fines already seen in this field, only time will tell whether this recent announcement will in fact have any real impact. That said, one thing that is certain is that fines will not be decreasing.  

By now most businesses are well versed in their health and safety responsibilities and quite rightly place this high on the agenda. It is essential that fire safety is included within this and regard is had to the following:

  • Obtaining fire safety advice from a qualified source;
  • Ensuring that risk assessments are carried out and control measures are implemented;
  • Putting documented policies and procedures in place;
  • Ensuring that employees receive adequate fire safety training and information; and
  • Measures are put in place to report, audit and review the efficiency of fire safety management systems.

Natalie Puce is a partner at BLM.

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