Tower Hamlets London Borough Council will not face manslaughter charges over Mile End Park death
On 17th July 2015, Alexia Walenkaki died after a tree trunk holding the swing she was playing on collapsed on top of her in a park in Mile End. The young girl went into cardiac arrest and died of severe head injuries following the incident.
Operational inspections were carried out on 1st June 2015 and on the day of the incident by Tower Hamlets London Borough Council (the "Council"), with no issues found with the tree. Yet a report compiled by the Metropolitan Police found that the tree trunk was decayed. It also appeared that an annual inspection which was more thorough than the operational inspections had not been carried out since September 2013.
After reviewing the case, the CPS said no fault was identified with the trunk during inspections both before and after Alexia's death and therefore no criminal charges would be brought against the council due to insufficient evidence. This was despite recommendation at the inquest for the Council to be prosecuted for corporate manslaughter under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 (the "Act").
Had the annual inspection and their usual inspections taken place along with testing on the tree itself, then this accident could have been prevented. A more thorough inspection would have highlighted that decay was in fact present and due to the stress of the constant use of equipment, the risk of failure of the equipment was inevitable.
The decision not to charge the Council with corporate manslaughter is not surprising. Since the introduction of the Act, there have been relatively few prosecutions for corporate manslaughter, although in recent years, prosecutions are now beginning to gather pace.
The CPS's decision not to prosecute may be in part due to the difficulty in proving that a substantial element of the breach of a duty of care was caused by the way the Council's senior management team managed or organised its activities, which is a requirement under the Act. It may be that the fact that the Council did carry out regular inspections meant that they had discharged their duty of care. Equally, the prosecuting authority may have been sympathetic to the Council's failure to carry out an annual inspection due to insufficient resources.
Public authorities and other organisations responsible for children's play areas should be minded of their health and safety obligations. Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, an organisation is responsible for ensuring that the health and safety of the public is protected from their activities. This can be achieved through the use of risk assessments to assess playground activities. However, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) acknowledges that playgrounds should be fun and exciting environments and it is important to strike the right balance between protecting children from harm and allowing them the freedom to develop independence and risk awareness during play.
Unfortunately this case is a classic illustration of when a poorly designed and maintained playground environment combined with the absence of a detailed risk assessment leads to an entirely preventable fatality.
Should you have any queries in relation to this article or would like to discuss your health and safety obligations in relation to playgrounds and children's play areas, please contact the Health and Safety Team at Fieldfisher.