Court of Appeal upholds £400,000 fine for New Look
Retailer New Look’s appeal against its record £400,000 fine for fire safety breaches at its Oxford Street store has been dismissed with the Court of Appeal saying the fine was not excessive in view of the company’s “lamentable” performance of fire safety duties.
The court decided that the level of the fine was not excessive in relation to the seriousness of the offences, the size and nature of the company, and the risk to the public which New Look ran. The court also held that the fine was not out of kilter with those for offences under general health and safety legislation where there was a risk of death or serious injury.
The conviction of New Look last November followed a fire at its Oxford Street store on 26 April 2009, which resulted in a chaotic evacuation of some 400 people, the closure part of Oxford Street for two days, and the eventual demolition of the building. The company was subsequently prosecuted and pleaded guilty to two main counts under the Fire Safety Order – failing to carry out a suitable and sufficient risk assessment, and failing to ensure that employees were given adequate fire safety training. Other alleged detailed breaches were taken into account under these two counts.
The Court of Appeal concluded that while it accepted that the fire itself was not caused by the retailer’s breaches of duty, (the cause of the fire has never been established) the offences were serious enough to create a magnitude of risk in which death and serious injury in the fire was avoided by luck.
The appeal judges also agreed with the trial judge that a starting point for a fine in these circumstances was £600,000. This was rightly reduced to £400,000 in view of nobody being killed or injured, the company pleading guilty and co-operating with the investigation at the earliest opportunity, and the company demonstrating that it had taken significant steps to remedy fire safety shortcomings across its stores.
The Court of Appeal held that the fine needs to be sufficiently high to act as a deterrent to the offender and to adequately reflect the public's concern.
The Court of Appeal also held that the sentence was consistent with the Corporate Manslaughter and Health and Safety Offences Causing Death guidelines set by the Sentencing Guidelines Council.
This judgement by the Court of Appeal suggests that the courts will now assess the seriousness of any breach of the fire safety rules by considering the risk created by the breach, rather than the actual harm caused. This sets the standard very high for occupiers of business premises and it is now possible that the occurrence of even a relatively small incident could reveal breaches that result in a large penalty.
It is therefore very important that all occupiers of business premises should have a fire safety assessment carried out, and to fully comply with the guidelines set in them, to avoid any possible breaches of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005.
Registered Office: Southwold House, 66 Botley Road, Park Gate, Southampton, United Kingdom. Company Number: 07810000