The sentencing of the owner of a prestige wedding venue to 20 months imprisonment, one of the longest sentences imposed under the Fire Safety Order, was significant in many respects. It was a case which covered many aspects of culpability under the Fire Safety Order and represented a successful six-year long enforcement regime for Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service.
The offences were committed between May 2012 and October 2014. They related to two aspects of fire safety at Haslington Hall, a grade 1 listed 16th century country house, and a ‘prestigious’ Cheshire wedding venue. The first set of charges, committed in May 2012, related to unsuitable living accommodation for an employee found on the 2nd floor of the main hall. The second set of charges arose from a “big marquee”, erected at the hall during the summer of 2014.
The ‘Attic Bedroom’
In May 2012 fire officers from Cheshire FRS attended at the premises.
The manager at the premises could not provide any evidence of staff training in the event of fire nor was there any evidence of evacuation drills. The inspection showed that all records of fire alarm and emergency lighting testing ceased in October 2011. There were no records of any fire extinguishers having been tested frequently or recently.
In the attic of the premises a makeshift bedroom had been constructed but there were a number of significant fire risks. It was also clear that cigarettes, smoked in the area were not being properly extinguished. Hanging from the ceiling was a cable that was part of the fire alarm system, but the wire had never been connected to a fire detection device.
The attic therefore had no automatic fire detection. The escape route was surrounded by combustibles and there were no fire resistant doors. Other self-closing doors were found to be defective. The officers went on to perform a full audit discovering that the fire risk assessment was not a suitable document in that it had not identified any of the difficulties observed by the officers. There was no provision for testing or any real planning in the event of a fire.
Enforcement and Prohibition Notices were issued, prohibiting the use of the second floor as sleeping or living accommodation.
The officers were of the view that there were not enough fire extinguishers in areas of the premises.
- The fire alarm sounders and detectors were insufficient.
- There were no effective plans for evacuation
- The signage to emergency exits was deficient
- There was no real evidence of training or maintenance of what equipment there was.
In August 2012 an inspection revealed that the requested works had not been carried out. In January 2013 there was a further inspection and some of the work had been done but not all the required work.
The ‘Big Marquee’
The “Big Marquee” was erected at Haslington Hall just before the summer of 2014. Following information received from Cheshire County Council the premises were inspected by fire officers in August 2014.
During the visit the officers noted that the marquee had deficiencies in the way in which the electricity supply was organised. There was a lack of effective fire alarms and firefighting equipment. The emergency evacuation routes and exits could not adequately be used by the number of people that would need them in an emergency. In any event there was a lack of emergency signage and lighting to help people to those exits if there were a fire.
The officers were of the opinion that the problems were so severe that there was a serious and imminent risk to life and a Prohibition notice was issued to address that imminent risk along with a schedule of required work. That Notice was never appealed.
In September 2014 fire officers were requested to return to the premises with a view to lifting the Prohibition Notice. They found a number of employees and members of the public preparing for a wedding. The manager there confirmed he was aware of the Prohibition Notice, but that the wedding booked for the following day would still be taking place.
Officers attended again in late September 2014 to find that wedding receptions were taking place. The staff provided documentation purporting to provide evidence of conformity with the demands of the Notice but the documents were misleading. Again, in October fire officers attended and there was a wedding reception taking place in contravention of the Prohibition Notice.
In November 2015, the defendants, Mohammed Isaq and Haslington Hall Limited (of which Isaq was a director) pleaded guilty to 18 offences under the FSO. 8 of those offences related to breaches of enforcement and prohibition notices.
Proceeds of Crime Act Proceedings (POCA)
As a result of the defendants ignoring the prohibition notice in relation to the big marquee, and continuing to take and make money from the premises which were prohibited, CFRS decided that such income was effectively the proceeds of crime. Accordingly, they commenced the POCA proceedings in respect of the monies received whilst failing to comply with fire safety legislation.
The POCA application and sentence were fixed to be dealt with in June 2016. However, a couple of days before the hearing. The defendant Isaq sacked his representatives. The court was persuaded to adjourn sentence to a later date. The defendants then made an application to the court to vary their guilty pleas. That application was refused in February 2017.
The defendants then applied for leave to appeal that decision. Leave was refused, the judge noting that the “application lacks merit.” Application for leave was then renewed before the full Court of Appeal.
However, in early 2018 the defendants abandoned their appeals and offered to pay the prosecution costs of over £70,000.
The Honorary Recorder of Chester, Judge Roger Dutton, told Isaq that the breaches were “flagrant” and put the public at risk.
He said: “These are very serious breaches. After all should a disaster happen it is the fire service who have to put the lives of their employees at risk to save lives of the public.
“A more flagrant breach of the legislation there cannot be in my view. You regarded fire safety measures as an inconvenience. You simply ignored many of the important aspects of the enforcement notices and completely ignored two prohibition notices – there to ensure the public is not placed at risk.”
The Judge stated that only a sentence of immediate imprisonment was appropriate. In respect of 7 charges he sentenced the defendant Isaq to 10 months imprisonment to run concurrently. In respect of the breaches of the prohibition notice, the defendant was sentenced to a further 10 months imprisonment to run consecutive to the other sentences.
The recent significant case of R V Sandhu 2017, was referred to. That case confirmed that the sentencing guidelines for health and safety cases can be referred to when applying the principles of sentencing to ensure that any sentence is commensurate with other similar health and safety type offences.
The company Haslington Hall limited were fined £1000 in respect of each of the 9 charges.
In view of the fact that the defendant had made a contribution of £72,000 towards prosecution costs, and the fact that the venue was no longer trading, and the company was no longer operating, it was considered that it was not in the public interest to pursue the POCA application.
The Defendant Company had previously been prosecuted under the Fire Safety Order in 2012and received a substantial fine.
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