Manchester Hole – HSE prosecution

Background

In November 2005, Joe Lister, a 14 year old pupil from a local grammar school was taking part in a supervised caving trip run by Bewerley Park outdoor centre. He was one of 11 pupils accompanied by an instructor, a teacher and a trainee instructor exploring Manchester Hole cave in Nidderdale in the Yorkshire Dales. The group got into difficulties when water in the cave rose very rapidly, forcing them to swim through a 12 metre long and 1 metre high (at its lowest point) tunnel to safety. Tragically, Joe Lister was drowned.

HSE brought a prosecution that was heard fully in the Crown Court in April 2010. North Yorkshire County Council, which ran the outdoor centre, was prosecuted on two counts under Section 2 and Section 3 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. The Section 2 charge related to the authority’s failure to ensure the safety of its employees, including the teacher, and the Section 3 charge to the safety of the pupils. At the end of the trial, verdicts of not guilty were returned by the jury. At the earlier inquest in 2007, a narrative verdict was recorded by the Coroner.

The defence case was that the conditions on the day of the accident were unprecedented and that the rapid rise of water levels could not have been foreseen. The prosecution case was that instructors should have checked water levels at a nearby reservoir as an indicator of whether conditions underground were dangerous. The jury was persuaded by the arguments that the conditions were unprecedented.

Mr Justice Wilkie said outdoor activities had real education benefits but were inherently dangerous and supported both the decision of the Health and Safety Executive to prosecute the council and the jury’s verdicts. He said: “I trust, however, that this will not be regarded as a reason for any complacency or self-congratulation by those involved in organising and delivering these activities. For the one thing this case has taught is that, however great the expertise and however ‘easy’ the cave, they can be unpredictable and dangerous. I trust that this trial will have provided a spur to them to maximize their understanding of the systems within which they work and to seek to ensure that the activities are delivered in as safe a way as possible.”

A spokesperson for North Yorkshire County Council said that the authority was pleased the verdict had confirmed the procedures and practices followed in its outdoor education centres reflected all current legislation and guidance. She said the council’s arrangements had ensured that activities had been led by staff of integrity and substantial experience, who were extremely well qualified. “Evidence presented during the trial by a significant number of witnesses with extensive knowledge of Manchester Hole shared the view that the events on 14 November were unprecedented and could not therefore have been predicted. What this case underlines once again is that for children to gain the undoubted benefits of these activities in the outdoors, they must be undertaken with expertise and care. The county council will ensure that its centres continue to operate to the highest standards.

HSE defended its decision to prosecute North Yorkshire County Council. The Head of Operations for HSE (North East) said it had done so after a thorough investigation. She said “Mr Justice Wilkie said it was entirely proper that this case was brought. One issue on which both parties are agreed is the benefit that outdoor activities provide to young people. We have not sought to stop these activities in any way. HSE is not trying to eliminate all risk – that would be absurd. Neither are we are looking for absolute safety. But we will continue to expect significant risks to be identified and managed.”

Legal issues around foreseeability are discussed in the solicitors’ article referenced below.

Comment

This was a lengthy and undoubtedly difficult case. HSE’s decision to prosecute, at a time when it was promoting sensible risk management, would have been very carefully considered and it was clearly felt that the weight of evidence on the adequacy of the risk assessment was sufficient. The judge stated his view that the prosecution had been properly brought. There is no legal precedent here – on the facts of the case and the presentation of the lay and expert evidence, the jury reached a conclusion.

Links and references

Article in the York Press, 26 May 2010, following completion of the trial. This article contains links to two videos made by the Health and Safety Laboratory explaining the Manchester Hole cave system and the likely sequence of events respectively.

Web article from solicitors Eversheds, discussing relevant matters of foreseeability

You Tube video of a balanced item from BBC Look North, which shows the location of the accident within the cave system

HSE v North Yorkshire County Council – caving tragedy at Manchester Hole

This case law entry was written by Mark Daniels and was published in August 2011

This website entry was last updated on 1 March, 2012

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