G4S loses permission to appeal £1.8m sentence

Date: 
Wednesday, 26 July, 2017
Number: 
17-43

Harlow Council has welcomed the Court of Appeals decision to refuse G4S Cash Solutions (UK) Limited permission to appeal a £1.8m fine imposed on it last year for serious water safety breaches at its Harlow branch.

G4S was given a £1.8m fine by HHJ Peters at Chelmsford Crown Court on 2 September 2016 after Harlow Council prosecuted the company for failing to protect its workers from the risk of Legionnaires’ disease.

Following a report that a Harlow resident had contracted Legionellosis, Harlow Council Environmental Health Officers carried out an inspection in October 2013 where a serious lack of compliance in maintaining water systems at the site was identified.  Officers found that the monitoring and testing of systems was erratic, staff had received inadequate training, and there were no up-to-date policies or suitable and sufficient risk assessments in place to safely operate or manage the building's water systems.

G4S did not take the steps required to reduce the risk of Legionnaires’ disease from its water systems and this was despite a long-standing duty, extensive guidance, advice from their own consultants and advice from Harlow Council. 

Despite a Primary Authority partnership with Reading Borough Council, G4S, represented by Weightmans LLP, was found guilty of failing to ensure the safety of employees, under Section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, and fined £1.6m; a further £200,000 fine was issued for failing to ensure others were not exposed to risk under Section 3 of the same Act.

In October 2016, G4S lodged an application for permission to appeal the sentence.  Honour Mr Justice Popplewell refused permission to appeal on the 7 November 2016.

G4S then renewed their application for leave to appeal the sentence.  At the appeal hearing on Wednesday 12 July 2017 heard at the Royal Courts of Justice, G4S claimed that the sentence was manifestly excessive. Whilst the company did not dispute the facts of the case, G4S claimed that the court’s characterisation of culpability as ‘very high’ (a ‘deliberate breach of, or flagrant disregard for, the law’) was wrong. G4S sought to have the culpability reduced to ‘high’. The company argued that it had tried to address the risk from Legionella by having a policy and risk assessment, took steps internally and had engaged an independent contractor to carry out routine management and monitoring checks.

In giving judgement, Ms Justice Russell stated that it was difficult to see how any argument could reduce the characterisation of culpability as ‘very high’ within the sentencing guidelines.  G4S were aware of their legal obligations and over a period of four-and-half years it failed to act.  This could only be viewed to be a blatant and flagrant disregard of compliance with statutory obligations.

Councillor Danny Purton, Portfolio Holder for Environment, said: “I am pleased that the Court has upheld the level of fine originally handed down to G4S in full. Although G4S did make some improvements to its practises it was aware of its legal obligations to protect its staff and visitors from exposure to Legionella bacteria and, over a period of four-and-a-half years, it had failed to act.

“The health and safety of our residents is our number-one priority. The Council will always take decisive action in situations like this where necessary because people’s lives could be at stake.

"This decision sends an important message to other companies up and down the country; Legionnaires’ disease is a real risk and employers must take health and safety duties to their employees and others very seriously.

"Once again I want to congratulate Harlow Council’s Environmental Health and Legal Teams for their hard work and professionalism in securing a successful outcome.”

Harlow Council Environmental Health is a regulator for workplace health and safety. It aims to reduce work-related death, injury and ill health. It does so through advice, inspection, investigation and enforcement.

The inhalation of small droplets of contaminated water containing Legionella bacteria can cause Legionnaires' disease, a potentially fatal form of pneumonia. Hot and cold systems are likely to provide an environment where Legionella can grow if not managed.

For more information, please visit: www.hse.gov.uk/legionnaires