Serco’s ‘systemic failures’ led to fatal attack on custody officer, court hears

Lorraine Barwell was not aware of a prisoner’s previous violent outbursts despite Serco having access to this information.

Serco van
Serco van

The “serious and systemic failures” of courts security contractor Serco led to a mentally ill prisoner kicking a custody officer to death, a court had heard.

Humphrey Burke, 28, attacked 54-year-old Lorraine Barwell as she tried to escort him from his cell in Blackfriars Crown Court in central London, in June 2015.

Burke admitted manslaughter by diminished responsibility and was handed an indefinite hospital order at the Old Bailey in January this year.

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

Prison custody officer Lorraine Barwell
Prison custody officer Lorraine Barwell had been drafted in to assist with transporting a prisoner from his cell to a van due to staff shortages in court (Family handout/PA)

Prosecutors say attacks on two employees – Ms Barwell and another custody officer Bernadette Cawley – within that period demonstrate what can happen if the right health and safety steps are not taken.

Ms 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 but no other custody staff were in the immediate proximity to assist when she pressed the alarm.

The firm is set to be sentenced but first evidence is being disputed in front of Mr Justice Jeremy Baker at a two-week hearing at Prospero House, central London.

Prosecutor Gordon Menzies told the hearing on Monday that Serco’s court staff and escort staff, were put at risk due to issues with staffing levels, information, management of information, training, management and personal protective equipment (PPE).

Mr Menzies said: “It can readily be appropriated that an obvious risk in the custodial environment is injury caused by attacks on staff by prisoners.

But he argued that this risk can be mitigated by “the number of and the right type of staff as well and that the staff are properly managed and have the right equipment both physically and mentally.”

“The prosecution say that these control measures, to the extent that they were in place, broke down and this is because of serious and systemic failures and as a result, the very thing they were meant to prevent, happened,” he said.

In the case of Ms Barwell, Mr Menzies told the court that she was a member of the van crew but she had been drafted in to assist with transporting Burke from his cell to the van due to staff shortages in court.

He said that Ms Barwell was not aware of Burke’s previous violent outbursts despite Serco having access to this information.

Court guard death hearing
Humphrey Burke admitted the manslaughter by diminished responsibility of Lorraine Barwell by kicking her in the head as she escorted him from court (Metropolitan Police/PA)

“No-one told her or gave her any indication that this was a man who could lash out for any reason and that you could not read him or know how he would react and that is certainly what happened here,” Mr Menzies said.

“Without warning, he lashed out at Lorraine Barwell. He kicked her once, she fell to the ground and he kicked her again to the head and she sustained fatal injuries.

“She went into the situation blind,” he added.

The hearing also heard that she had not been given enough “control and restraint” training and was not provided with a PPE helmet.

“Any member of staff having to deal with a person like this should, the prosecution say, have ready access to PPE,” Mr Menzies added.

Mr Menzies also said Serco failings were seen in the case of Bernadette Cawley, who was assaulted by a prisoner on June 15, 2016 at Woolwich Crown Court.

“Bernadette Cawley was in one of the annex courts where she was assaulted,” he said.

“The alarm button was pressed but because there was no staff present in the annex, staff had to come all the way from the main custody suite at the end of the building.”

The court heard that the clerk had to call the custodial suite to alert them of the situation.

“On that day, there should have been 32 staff present for that court to have been properly manned. There were 22,” he said.

Mr Menzies indicated that Serco, which is being represented by James Maxwell-Scott, would stress that “the Ministry of Justice oversaw them and that they rewarded them with the contracts”.

The hearing continues.

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