Substantial fine for Local Authority relating to failings in a local authority run school

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28 October, 2020

An assault by a pupil on a teacher has led to a fine of £300 000 (before reduction due to lack of revenue due to coronavirus) for Luton Borough Council.

Luton Crown Court heard how on 17 June 2016, the assistant head teacher at Putteridge High School was called to deal with a disruptive pupil who was refusing to go into a detention room. The teacher cleared the classroom of other pupils but then the disruptive pupil launched a serious assault on the teacher, using a mobile phone and inflicting life changing injuries.

The HSE investigation concluded that there were significant shortcomings in relation to the measures at the school regarding violence and aggression posed by the pupils to others. No effective consideration was given to the risk of injury or death posed by the pupils to others and measures were not taken to reduce that threat to as low as reasonably practicable.

The court found that Luton Borough Council did not ensure that the school had people with sufficient competence in the management of health and safety involved in running the school to ensure that the threat was addressed. The Council did not see to it that staff members at the school had the training either to remedy that shortcoming or to deal with violent and aggressive pupils in a way which did not expose them to risk. The council also failed to monitor the adequacy of the measures Putteridge High School had in place and the council therefore failed to pick up and address the shortcomings.

Luton Borough Council pleaded guilty to breaching Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and was fined £104,000 with £60,000 costs. The fine was reduced from £300,000 due to the Council's lack of revenue as a result of the coronavirus pandemic

Her Honour Judge Mensah in sentencing said: "There is no doubt in my mind that this was a properly brought prosecution. Not to have brought a prosecution in this serious case would, apart from anything else, have sent a completely wrong message to the school, its governors, the staff and pupils, other local authorities with responsibilities under the Education Acts and to the public generally.

"This was a large organisation which, to a very large extent, relied on employees conducting the day to day running of the school as it could not, and did not, have complete control over the daily functioning of the school. However, I am satisfied that the systems that were in place were inadequate and oversight by the local authority was 'light' - I accept that no concerns were brought to the attention of the local authority but that equally, it does not appear that the local authority invited matters to be brought to its attention."

Speaking after the hearing, HSE inspector Emma Page said: "In community schools, where the local authority is the employer, the local authority must monitor the arrangements it's schools have in place to manage the risk from violence and aggression".

Forbes' Comment

Pupil disruption in some school is not uncommon, and, as seen in this case, older pupils in particular can be strong enough to cause serious injury.

In the case of council run schools it was not sufficient for an authority to simply rely on the school to ensure adherence to health and safety. Councils have to be proactive to ensure and be satisfied that their schools have effective safe system of work in place and can't simply delegate that responsibility to the individual schools if they want to avoid such prosecution and fines.

Local authorities should ensure that schools have effective Behaviour Management policy in place with training, information and instruction provided to both staff and pupils of the behaviour plan.

It is interesting to note that the fine was reduced due to financial constraints caused by coronavirus. If this is a factor for your organisation you are likely to need to provide details of the impact of COVID on resources to seek a reduction in the fine that would otherwise be given.

The Court when sentencing have to have regard to the Sentencing Council Definitive guideline for Health and Safety offences which have been in place for all sentences after the 1 February 2016. When the Court are looking at the starting point of any fine, they are guided by the offender to provide financial information. The guide sets out that for local authorities and similar public bodies: the Annual Revenue Budget ('ARB') is the equivalent of turnover and the best indication of the size of the organisation.

The guide also specifies that any fine should reflect the extent to which the offender fell below the required standard and should be fair and proportionate. The Court can examine "the financial circumstances of the offender in the round to assess the economic realities of the organisation...". This would usually involve evidence being provided by the offender on the impact any significant level of fine would have on the organisation e.g loss of service, redundancies etc.

Whilst this case involved a local authority, there is nothing to say that the Court would not look at the financial impact consequences from the pandemic effecting other types of organisations facing sentence for health and safety offences. The onus would be on the offender to gather the evidence to present that financial impact assessment to the Court.

For more information contact Ridwaan Omar in our Insurance department via email or phone on 01254 222457. Alternatively send any question through to Forbes Solicitors via our online Contact Form.

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