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Health and Safety Executive in High Court Over Chris Pullen Death

IWCA | 14.11.2003 22:42 | Analysis | Indymedia | Social Struggles | London

Christopher Pullen Campaign: HSE finds itself in the dock for the first time ever due to the personal determination of one working class mother from Islington, seeking justice for her tragically killed son ...

IWCA-backed campaign lands HSE in High Court

13 November 2003

In a landmark case, a battery of Health and Safety Executive (HSE) officials, flanked by their highly paid barristers, walked into the High Court in the Strand on Monday morning, November 3. The case revolved around the death of a child, twelve year-old Christopher Pullen, who was killed on the Market Estate in September 2000. Tragic but straightforward enough, except on this occasion it was paradoxically the HSE itself that was on trial.

Institutional culpability apart, their unprecedented appearance in the High Court can be put down to the personal determination of one working class mother from Islington and the political backing provided for her by the IWCA.

Christopher died when a heavy steel door, lying off its hinges, propped up in the stairwell of a block of flats, fell on him causing fatal injuries. The door had been reported as ‘urgent repair’ some three months earlier.

When the HSE announced in February 2001 that they did not intend to prosecute Islington Council for negligence due to ‘insufficient evidence’ even the Coroner appeared baffled. ‘What more evidence do you need?’ she inquired.

Six months on, the IWCA was asked by the family to take up the case. The prospects weren’t good—Christopher’s death appeared to be very much yesterday’s news. But within a matter of weeks the freshly launched Justice for Christopher campaign was regularly making headlines in the local press. The Liberal Democrat-run council, who only months before had congratulated itself on escaping censure over the death, was not pleased. How did it respond? With an attempt to sue Karen Pullen for failing to pay her community charge. Of course it didn’t help the council’s case that she was exempt. The campaign was able to exploit this public relations disaster to the maximum; with the ensuing press saga serving to re-ignite working class anger locally.

To mark the first anniversary of the fatal accident a convoy of cars assembled on the Market Estate, where the family had lived. From there they drove through Islington, ending at the Town Hall where a hundred-strong picket lined up on the steps. The event was covered by both BBC and ITN. Thousands of leaflets were distributed on the streets and market areas along the route.

Significantly, it was only when the demonstration reached Upper Street, where well-heeled customers sat outside the expensive restaurants sipping coffee in the autumn sunshine, that the enthusiastic leafleting by children from the Market Estate received a rebuff. Customers were also seen to deliberately cover their ears in protest at the noise of the car horns as the procession passed, unwittingly providing a fitting metaphor for the local Liberal Democrats, the HSE and some sections of the local press.

Lib Dem boss Mayor Steve Hitchins was beside himself. Not content with crumpling up a leaflet he also got involved in an unseemly brawl with a free-lance photographer before beating a hasty retreat in the face of the hundred or so angry campaigners. Not wanting to be left out, former Cabinet Minister Chris Smith complained about the inconvenience of his car being blocked-in by the demonstrators. For his pains he got almost as rough a reception as Hitchins. Even the mayor’s chauffeur wanted in on the act, offering one demonstrator out before realising that the mayor himself, whose dignity he was loyally offering to defend, was nowhere to be seen. When Hitchins was interviewed he pointed the finger at the tenants themselves.

Less than six months later Islington Council and the HSE were back in front of the cameras. A different council estate, another unattended door, only this time a little girl of six narrowly escaped being crushed. Despite the pious promises of council officials it was clear that the necessary lessons simply hadn’t been learnt.

And while the sympathy of the working class public in Islington for Karen remained steadfast, sections of the press were proving less resolute. Off the record briefings from the council directed both against the family and of course the IWCA began to seep into their coverage. Recognising that while the council hid behind the HSE public opinion alone would not be enough to cause a breakthrough, campaigners took the decision to confront the HSE directly.

With no reason to believe it would involve anything more than an extension of common courtesy, followed swiftly by closure, the HSE agreed to meet face-to-face with Karen Pullen and an IWCA representative. Part of the reason for this agreement, was that the HSE had found it very difficult to explain why it had never officially spoken to Karen Pullen, even though, as well as being the mother of the victim, she was also the primary adult witness at the scene. Even the decision not to prosecute had been relayed to the Pullen family via the media.

With the Campaign for Corporate Accountability (CCA), also sited in Islington, acting as go-between, Karen Pullen, a representative from the CCA and Gary O’Shea from the IWCA met the HSE on 1 February 2002.

Almost immediately things started to go wrong for the HSE. Mark Farrell, their investigative officer, explained that it had taken two weeks from the time of the fatal accident for him to get to the Market Estate because, in his estimation, the tragedy was an ‘un-reportable incident’. When he followed this up by commenting that he could not begin to even consider bringing a prosecution until the individual who last moved the door could be identified, Karen Pullen was forced to interrupt. ‘It was common knowledge,’ she said ‘that a community service team had painted the wall against which the door had been lying on the very day the accident occurred.’ After another two hours of similarly coruscating revelation a seriously embarrassed Murray Devine, (HSE representative for the South-East), agreed that in the light of basic investigative failures the original HSE decision not to prosecute would be reviewed. ‘We do not want to be regarded as bulwark against justice,’ he remarked.

The review was to be conducted by a barrister, who although attached to the HSE, would be entirely independent of the original inquiry team. Six weeks was the maximum time allotted to complete the HSE review. For reasons as yet unexplained more than a year would pass before the decision not to prosecute was outlined in detail.

Throughout, the CCA remained optimistic, believing the hold-up represented evidence of HSE ‘thoroughness’. However, the IWCA grew increasingly sceptical, seeing the stalling as possibly part of a wider tactic to kill off the campaign.

So when on January 9 2003 the HSE barrister heading the inquiry, James Turnill, endorsed the original decision, there was bitter disappointment but no surprise. The question was: where to turn?

While this was being debated, the offer of a personal explanation by the HSE lay on the table for over two months.

When eventually on March 11th, the offer was finally taken up, Karen as a form of protest decided not to attend. Instead she was represented by another Islington IWCA member Lorna Reid.

Once again the HSE seemed to make a critical error in underestimating what they now clearly regarded as their opponents. As with the initial face-to-face meeting, approximately twenty minutes was again set aside for the legal explanation. And just as before, after two hours of gruelling probing by the two IWCA reps in particular, barrister James Turnill was on the ropes, being reduced to adopting the tactic of no comment on the grounds of avoiding self-incrimination. Indeed the entire HSE team looked exhausted. When, after one bout of cross-questioning, it was politely asked if any of them had visited the estate there was a brief exchange of hopeful looks between them, followed by a prolonged silence.

Even if they had known at the time that the extensive minutes of this meeting would go on to form the basis of the successful legal challenge at judicial review, ultimately resulting in the first ever appearance of the HSE in the High Court, they could not possibly have looked any glummer.

For the IWCA activists involved perhaps their greatest difficulty over the two years was the need to constantly remind themselves that they were not dealing with some dodgy building sub-contractor but with a government funded body charged with the guardianship of public health and safety.

The High Court ruling is expected to be handed down within four weeks.

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Display the following 2 comments

  1. Huge respect — Thorn
  2. Hopefully Justice at Last — Cathy Taylor