Judge defends sentences in slurry case

A senior judge took the unusual step today of defending himself after criticism of sentences he handed out to a Norfolk waste company and its two bosses after the deaths of three workers.

A senior judge took the unusual step today of defending himself after criticism of sentences he handed out to a Norfolk waste company and its two bosses after the deaths of three workers.

Judge Peter Jacobs came out fighting against the BBC following a report about the sentencing of Enviro-Waste Ltd, its director, and general manager on health and safety breaches, which led to the tragic deaths of three men in a slurry tank, near Thetford, almost three years ago.

The Thetford based company was ordered to pay a £72,500 fine and £50,000 costs on Thursday after admitting failing to manage the risks of animal waste holding tanks, but the family and friends of the victims were critical of the £10,000 penalties given to manager Gordon Betts and director Roger Clark.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) prosecution came after the horrific deaths of Timothy Bartram, 46, George Barnes, 28, and Graham Morris, 54, who were overcome by toxic fumes and drowned in three feet of slurry at a field at Great Hockham in July 2004.

But in a statement released today, Judge Jacobs singled out BBC Radio Norfolk for failing to highlight his sentencing powers under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 breaches.

“Normally I would not comment further on any case I have sentenced but in view of the criticism made of me on BBC Radio Norfolk I would point out that in fixing the level of fines which was the only penalty available I have to take into account the ability to pay.”

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The Norwich Crown Court judge added that the fine and costs were almost all of Enviro-Waste's £150,000 profit from last year and Betts was now retired with a pension of £17,000.

“I am very conscious of the grief suffered by the families of the deceased but I can only fine defendants what they can afford to pay in respect of any breaches of health and safety legislation,” the judge added.

“All of this was fully referred to in court and in my sentencing remarks but none of this was referred to in the BBC report.”

Judge Jacobs' comments came after the widow and sister of Graham Morris, from Thetford, who died whilst trying to save Timothy Bartram from the hazardous slurry tank, spoke of their “disgust” and “devastation” at the £10,000 fines for Betts and Clark.

The mother of lorry driver George Barnes, from Brandon, yesterday added her condemnation of the individual fines for the two bosses.

“It is disgusting, you could not even buy a car or new kitchen for that,” said Yvonne Barnes, who also described her son as a “hero” for taking part in the tragic rescue attempt of his colleague.

“They did get off lightly. It is very upsetting to say the least. We would have liked a heavier sentence but I cannot criticise the judge as he sat there for three hours and did not miss a thing. He had to sentence by the law,”

BBC Radio Norfolk declined to comment on Judge Jacobs' statement yesterday.