Fatal warehouse fire: ‘It’s the taxpayer who will be loser’ says judge
THE judge who has been presiding at legal proceedings following the warehouse fire at Atherstone-on-Stour, near Stratford-upon-Avon, in 2007 in which four firefighters died, has warned that the taxpayer will be the loser.
Mr Justice MacDuff was commenting on the possible outcome of a sentencing hearing, fixed for December, regarding Warwickshire County Council’s admission that it failed to ensure safety at work.
The judge has already presided over the trial at Stafford Crown Court—which concluded at the end of May after seven weeks—at which three fire managers were acquitted of manslaughter by gross negligence. The men had been charged after a £4.6 million police investigation into the blaze that took the lives of four firefighters.
In a directional hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice in London last week, Mr Justice MacDuff declared: “Sentencing a corporation is fraught with difficulty. For these offences there can only be a financial penalty. There is no person to imprison or to send to do community service.
“So there is a financial penalty imposed on the corporation for corporate failings—and people who were not responsible will suffer. Nevertheless, the law provides for heavy penalties where circumstances demand it; where the corporation is privately owned, sentencing policy recognises that shareholders must ultimately shoulder the burden.
“But in this case there are no shareholders, only taxpayers. And here is the crux. The prosecution is funded by the taxpayer, the defendant likewise. Any fine, small, large or in between, will be paid out of the defendant’s budget. It will pass from one public fund to another.
“Any order for costs, consequent upon my findings, will leave one public fund to be paid to another. The sentence is all about whether a large or small amount should be paid in fines and costs from A to B where both A and B are public funds which rely entirely upon local or national taxation or both.
“And to make that determination, another large amount of public money will be spent upon expensive lawyers and experts over several days, tying up a judge and a court room—not to mention court staff and overheads for the same period. In the final analysis, it will cost the taxpayer another huge sum of money—on top of that already spent—to decide which of two highly pressurised public funds should be depleted.
“The loser in all this will be the taxpayer. This case has already cost the taxpayer a huge sum of money. The taxpayer is going to have to transfer a sum of money, large or small, from one of his pockets to another. He might question the purpose of transferring money from one public fund (pocket) to another. He might further question the point of doing so, if a substantial additional premium in legal and experts’ fees is to be charged to enable the transfer to be made.
“I would ask the parties to reflect upon this and to consider what directions they wish me to make for the sentencing hearing which will taken place later this year.”
Yesterday (Monday) a spokesman for Warwickshire County Council told the Herald: “As the judge explains, the prosecution alleges various failings, some of which we accept and some of which we deny. Four of our firefighters died in this tragedy and we and everyone involved take this case very seriously.
“If an agreement with the prosecution on important issues cannot be reached, it will be necessary for the judge to hear evidence and make up his own mind on the facts before deciding on the sentence.
“That is why the court has set aside up to two weeks in December—although we will continue to do whatever we can to make the hearing much shorter than that.
“We are every bit as concerned as the judge is that any further expenditure to the taxpayer is kept to a minimum and we are doing our best to avoid any additional costs to the public purse.”