Ignorance of the law is no excuse

Following recent cases brought before the legal process in the UK, it would appear that a number of people in a position of authority, therefore the ‘responsible person’ as specified in the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, are either not aware of what their legal responsibilities are, or they are just treating them with a flagrant disregard. This is often done in the hopes that they will not be caught or, if they are, they will be treated lightly by the judicial system.  As with many other breaches of legal responsibilities, it is done in an attempt to save money.  It is seen as a kind of a gamble.  The odds of being caught and prosecuted are weighed against the cost of actually complying with the law in the first place.

Perversely, what these people are doing is carrying out a risk assessment of their actions or inaction. As we know, a risk assessment looks at the hazard, in this case a fine or imprisonment.  It then looks at the risk, in this case the likelihood of being caught and the severity of the outcome.  The more people who are caught red-handed and then handed a large fine or prison term, the more the odds shift in favour of the judicial system and away from any benefit to be gleaned by the wrong-doer.

So, why do these cases come before the courts time and again?
Taking aside those who deliberately disregard the law or feel it does not apply to them, we are left with people who actually do not know that what they are doing, or omitting, is wrong. Sadly in either case, if such people are not caught and brought to justice, the victims of their lack of compliance are innocent members of the public or, in some cases, employees.

Over the years, the law has evolved in all respects. In the case of fire law, we started with paragraphs within such Acts as the Hotels & Boarding Houses Act 1964, the Factories Act 1961 and the Offices Shops and Railway Premises Act 1963. These formed part of a large act which covered other matters not related to fire safety. In an attempt to bring it all together, we acquired the Fire Precautions Act 1971. This was when the fire authority would issue a Fire Certificate to certain premises which fell within the categories above and if they employed more than a certain number of people. This continued for a number of years during which the Workplace Regulations also came into effect. This required employers to carry out their own risk assessments for workplaces which did not come within the scope of other existing legislation.

Then after much research and development by the Government, we finally arrived at the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 which embraced every type of premises except for a single private dwelling. It conferred a responsibility upon the ‘Responsible Person’ to carry out a risk assessment and put right or mitigate any shortcomings which were identified.

So, this is where we are now. However it would appear that a number of people are continuing in blissful ignorance of the law and their legal obligation to comply with it. It is a basic principle that ignorance of the law is no excuse. If it were, then that would be everyone’s first line of defence and no legal cases would progress beyond the investigation stage. As with the Health and Safety at Work Act (which is 40 years old this month) the safety for complying with the law is the responsibility of everyone in the workplace to one degree or another. However, when it comes to enforcement, the buck stops with the Responsible Person who will be brought before the courts if any non-compliance issues are identified.
Personally, I believe that to use the excuse of not being aware of what one’s legal obligations are is easily exposed.

All buildings have certain fire safety elements built in. These are known as ‘passive fire protection’. These are the walls, doors, ceilings, floors and windows that comprise the building. Depending upon what the proposed use of the building is, these elements of construction will afford some degree of protection to the occupants in the event of there being a fire. They will either limit the spread of fire within the building or they will protect the escape routes for the occupants so that they may leave the building safely.

Then there are the things which are added to the building structure itself to further enhance the fire safety of those people within it. These are known as ‘active fire protection’. This includes fire alarms, emergency lighting, fire extinguishers and so on.

Finally, the third element is ‘management’. Anyone who is responsible for a building has to manage those facilities provided and the people within the building to achieve a safe place to be for whatever purpose.

Now, I cannot see how anyone can be in control of a building where people work, sleep, go to for entertainment or shop and not be aware that there must be some rules out there somewhere which they should obey to stay the right side of the law. Any reasonable person who sets up a business or takes on the management of any building where other people resort to should make it their duty to ascertain, before they start, what the rules and regulations are in respect of the operation they propose to carry out. To blunder on regardless, displays such a worrying and dangerous attitude to the safety of themselves and others that they deserve nothing less than the full force of the law to come down upon them.

Chris Fitzgerald MIFireE, MIIRSM, Tech IOSH
Senior Fire and Health & Safety Consultant. Quantum Compliance