A Grimsby and Cleethorpes landlord, Keith Newsum, with a portfolio of about 20 properties, has been jailed for five months for fire safety breaches after a fire swept through two terraced houses which he had joined together and laid out as ten or more bedsits for occupation by housing benefits claimants and those on low incomes. Newsum, who lied at a post-fire meeting and to investigators in interview under caution in an attempt to put them off the scent, then in the Crown Court took a series of points of statutory construction of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 and of admissibility, which led Greenwoods, on behalf of Humberside Fire and Rescue Service, to instruct Pascal Bates. When these points all failed to undermine the case against him, and trial was imminent, Newsum admitted four offences: that his unrevised risk assessments done before 2006 were inadequate, that fire doors should not have been wedged open, that the alarms in the two properties should have been interlinked (so an alert in either sounded both) and that both alarms failed on the night of the fire in 2014. The result of these failures had been that on the night, when there were between 10 and 20 persons in the twin houses and more in neighbouring properties down the street, some tenants were only alerted to fire by stones thrown up at their windows, and a mother and teenaged son had to climb out of a first floor window and jump down to escape. With fire doors wedged open, smoke and fire had readily spread, and smoke had invaded adjoining properties as well. It was, as the H.H.J. Peter Kelson Q.C. found, only by “good fortune” that no one died because of the “woeful inadequacies” of the approach to fire safety.
The sentencing exercise was a difficult one, with submissions both on the case law and as to the extent to which the new guideline for Health and Safety offences could assist as to fire offences to which the Sentencing Council had expressly decided not to extend it. The exercise was made more difficult still because of Newsum’s attempts (in fours successive sets of documents and submissions) to present his property portfolio, which was worth between £1 million and £2 million, as being of such a value and as being so mortgaged as to be in negative equity, and by his claims during his first sentencing hearing to have taken professional fire safety advice after the fire, which claims he later admitted (on being presented with new clear contrary evidence) were lies. The Judge, despite Newsum’s denials, found himself driven to conclude that Newsum “deliberately put profit before safety” and that he was a landlord who “put his own wealth before his tenants’ welfare”. The Judge, who said it was “rich” that Newsum should complain of a claim for investigative and legal costs which he had caused to be run up by his choice to “play the system” and delay his plea, ordered him to pay £100,000 costs. Newsum was also ordered to pay compensation to three families and one individual who had had to escape and whose property had been damaged by fire and smoke.
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