Safety Officer at Hillsborough Prosecuted12 Aug 2019
The Safety Officer at the Hillsborough stadium, when 96 fans were killed in a crush in 1989, has become the first individual to be prosecuted for the Hillsborough disaster. After a 10 week trial after which he received a £6,500 fine. The jury held him criminally responsible for a breach of his duties by only making seven turnstiles available for the 10,000 fans with standing tickets even though it was not a direct cause of the crush inside the grounds. Whilst the legal cases drag on 40 years after the disaster occurred, the event safety industry itself has long ago moved on and incorporated changes which mean that this type of incident could not be repeated in this way.
It might be argued that it is unfair to bring cases like this which are tried in the context of prevailing attitudes to controlling risk rather than those which prevailed at the time. Notwithstanding, it highlights that whilst there is a Statue of Limitations on civil cases (normally 3 years) there is no limit on criminal cases which can follow a defendant even into retirement. It is unusual because safety staff per se are very rarely prosecuted themselves as the prevailing assumption is that they act as advisors and it is for line management to act on that advice. Where they are prosecuted it is usually for some blatant disregard for well understood norms or where they have advised on areas in which they obviously lack the required competence.
In the events industry, however, event safety staff are often required to make operational decisions which means that they are more vulnerable to be held accountable for those decisions even when they are made in good faith. The current security threat has thrown crowd safety in particular into focus. ‘Safety’ staff are increasingly required to double up as security advisors which increases their potential liability. Many claim that they are brought in too late to the process and so have to manage the event area without the advantage of having been part of the planning process.
Event safety staff, whether in house or contracted, are a vital and valuable asset to the events industry and if they perceive that they are legally exposed they will take their talents and experience elsewhere. All parties need to ensure that they are part of risk assessment based planning so that they can make informed decisions when it comes to protecting the public and others.