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Serco fined £2.25m after custody officer killed in London court

Serco has been fined more than £2m for health and safety failures that led to a mentally ill prisoner kicking a custody officer to death.

Humphrey Burke, 29, attacked Lorraine Barwell, 54, as she tried to escort him from his cell in Blackfriars crown court in London in June 2015. Burke was due to be sentenced for arson and attempted robbery.

In January 2022 Burke admitted manslaughter by diminished responsibility and was handed an indefinite hospital order at the Old Bailey.

Barwell’s employer, Serco – which is contracted by the Ministry of Justice to provide security services in courts – pleaded guilty last April to failure to discharge general health, safety and welfare duty from January 2014 to March 2017.

The prosecution claimed that two attacks on custody officers – Barwell and Bernadette Cawley – within that period demonstrated what could happen if the right health and safety steps were not taken.

Cawley, who survived the attack, was strangled and rammed up against a wall in the dock in an annex court at Woolwich crown court in June 2016. She pressed an alarm but no other custody staff were nearby to help.

The Ministry of Justice said that Barwell was believed to be the first prison custody officer to be killed on duty. She had worked for the security contractor for more than 10 years.

While Serco had admitted two limited breaches in relation to the two incidents at Blackfriars and Woolwich, they denied they were the cause of the harm to the women. The prosecution had alleged there were wider failings, with areas including risk assessment, staffing levels, training and monitoring.

On Friday, Mr Justice Jeremy Baker fined Serco £2,250,000 and ordered the firm to pay the Health and Safety Executive costs of £433,596.

When sentencing the firm, Baker said: “I am satisfied that had it not been for Serco’s breach of duty towards its employees, Lorraine Barwell would not have died in the circumstances in which she did.”

In a victim impact statement, Barwell’s daughter Louise Grennan said: “Our mum was a wonderful loving supportive mother to myself, my brother and her two granddaughters whom she adored and loved, and they adored her.

“She too was a friend to many and loved by many. To lose her has left a huge void in everyone’s hearts.

“Mum was my best friend and she helped me care for my daughter. We spoke about plans to move abroad to live in the sun once mum had retired from work. That has all gone now.”

The HSE inspector Helen Donnelly said: “Serco drastically failed in their duties to protect both Lorraine Barwell and other staff over a sustained period. It is not common to have a case covering such an extended period, but it appeared that Serco Limited were not learning from their mistakes.”

Anthony Kirby, chief executive of Serco UK and Europe, said: “Everyone in Serco was deeply shocked and saddened when Lorraine was fatally assaulted by Humphrey Burke in 2015 and we continue to send our deepest condolences to her family and friends.

“Lorraine was a brave and experienced prisoner custody officer who was a popular and highly respected member of our team and had worked for Serco for over 10 years. She is still sorely missed by her colleagues and everyone across Serco.

“The safety and wellbeing of colleagues is our highest priority and, as recognised by the court, we have improved our safety processes. We continuously strive to seek to ensure such an incident can never happen again.”

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