Businesses urged to revisit fire safety obligations following New Look case

Businesses must take a fresh look at their fire safety obligations after a £400,000 fine imposed on fashion retailer, New Look, was recently upheld by the Court of Appeal, a law firm has warned. Shoosmiths says that following the judgment companies will now ignore fire safety regulations “at their peril”.

Partner and regulatory specialist, Ron Reid, stressed that the fine was imposed because of New Look’s failure to control risk; not because anyone had been injured in a fire at its Oxford Street store in London, which forced around 400 staff and customers to be evacuated.

Although no one was injured in the 2009 blaze, it was later found that there was an inadequate risk assessment, a lack of trained fire marshals, and that escape routes were not clearly identified and were obstructed, sometimes by combustible materials.

New Look was also criticised for having just one fire safety advisor for a group comprising of more than 600 shops. This, together with the fact the risks could have been removed at relatively little cost or inconvenience, showed a dismissive attitude towards its fire safety obligations, according to the court.

None of these factors contributed to the fire itself, but in rejecting New Look’s appeal against the fine, Shoosmiths says the court sent a clear message that those in control of premises subject to the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 must treat it seriously.

New Look’s prosecution flowed from numerous breaches of the Regulations, which were consolidated into two offences:

1.Failure to identify via appropriate assessment of the specific risks posed to individuals, the precautions necessary to ensure compliance with the regulations.

2.Failure to ensure that employees were provided with adequate safety training.

New Look was fined £250,000 and £150,000 respectively, and ordered to pay the £136,000 prosecution costs.

The court said the lack of competent fire marshals to coordinate the evacuation revealed New Look’s failure to put in place an organised system and shortcomings in fire drill and staff training.

The court acknowledged that £400,000 was severe, but did not deem it to be disproportionate to the circumstances.

The judge said:

“The absence of death and injury is plainly an important matter in this case, but I consider there are circumstances in which a court may not need to wait for the onset of human tragedy to send out a clear message that safety of customers and staff, or indeed anyone who may be affected, must be regarded as of paramount importance.”

Shoosmiths’ Ron Reid said:

“The court’s message appears to be that allowing continued fire safety risks creates a further risk of almost unrivalled proportions to individuals, and that this should be reflected in any penalties.”

In passing sentence, the court’s three principal considerations were:

the seriousness of the breach;

the capacity of the organisation to meet the fine; and

the need for the fine to make an impact on shareholders and senior managers.

Reid said:

“The hefty fine removes any doubt that retailers, and other organisations responsible for fire safety, cannot be complacent when it comes to complying with the Regulations. This penalty was imposed because of a failure to control risk rather than as a result of injury.

“Those controlling premises subject to the Regulations must review current policies to ensure compliance, and consider the structure and layout of their premises and what goes on in them.

“Whatever the opinion about the level of fine, there’s no question that managers ignoring or failing to address fire safety risk obligations now do so at their peril.”