Police Scotland has been fined £100,000 after admitting its failings “materially contributed” to the death of a young mum who lay undiscovered in a crashed car.
Tragic Lamara Bell, 25, suffered terrible injuries and remained in the passenger seat next to her dead partner for three days after the incident was reported to cops.
On Tuesday the force pleaded guilty to health and safety failings following the deaths of Lamara and John Yuill, 28, whose car went off the M9 near Stirling in July 2015.
In the hearing at the High Court in Edinburgh, judge Lord Beckett levied the massive fine.
The judge said Lamara endured “almost imaginable suffering” for three days and must’ve been in “disbelief” that aid didn’t come.
Lord Beckett said there had been “public outrage and condemnation” about the “fundamental failure” shown by police.
The failure to log the call was down to “human error”, Lord Beckett added, but large organisations needed to be “ever vigilant” to guard against such errors.
He said no sentence could reflect the “inestimable value of life lost and harm caused”.
But although a private company would likely face a fine running into the millions, he said, a public body such as Police Scotland is funded by taxpayers.
Earlier the court heard how a police sergeant who took a call reporting the couple’s car being off the road but failed to enter details into the electronic system.
It was described as “simple human error” and the unnamed officer has since admitted he should’ve created an incident report.
When fellow officers finally arrived at the wreck scene, John was found to be dead and Lamara died four days later in hospital.
The court was told the failure to create an incident report took place against a chaotic backdrop of various police call centres being amalgamated.
Recruitment problems plagued the Bilston Glen centre in Midlothian which was taking on the extra work from closed facilities in Stirling and Glenrothes.
Advocate depute Ashley Edwards QC told the hearing how a group of senior officers was formed to monitor the problems at Bilston Glen prior to the M9 accident. Ms Edwards said the group was aware of officers failing to attend other incidents and people making the reports calling back, leading to higher call volume.
The prosecutor said the “risk” posed by failing to attend such incidents was “not considered”, only the issue of the resulting increased call numbers.
Police chiefs had resorted to bringing in serving officers to fill-in at Bilston Glen to cover staffing short falls. It was one of those officers who took the call from John Wilson, the motorist who spotted the Renault Clio which had come off the motorway and careered down an embankment into trees.
The court heard John noticed the car at around 10.15am on July 5 2015 and made the 101 call to police at 11.28am.
Ms Edwards said the call handler asked if anyone was with the vehicle and John said “no”.
Amid a large-scale missing person hunt for Lamara and John, a second motorist spotted the car on July 8 and alerted police.
Ms Edwards said badly injured Lamara was found “moaning” in the car, saying “help me” and “get me out”.
Lamara was treated in hospital but died on July 12.
Murdo MacLeod QC, acting for Police Scotland, said the call handler had written down notes about the first report of the crashed car but “unfortunately” didn’t enter the details in the computer system.
Mr MacLeod said the tragedy took place at a time of “major transition” for Police Scotland which was amalgamating call centres from eight legacy forces, a move which would be “hugely difficult” for any large organisation.
The QC said the call handler involved previously had his work assessed as being of a “good standard” and there was “no issue” with his phone manner or performance.
The officer didn’t feel “under pressure” to reduce his level of calls, he added.
Mr MacLeod said the “risk of not transferring” handwritten notes to the computer system had been “missed”.
Chief Constable Iain Livingstone was in court for the hearing. In a letter written by him to Lord Beckett, which was read out in court, Mr Livingstone said Police Scotland had “failed” Lamara and John in its duty to protect the public.
Offering his condolences to the victim’s families, Mr Livingstone said he “apologised unreservedly” for what had occurred and added the 2015 call handling system “exposed the public to unacceptable risk” which led to the tragedy.
At the hearing, the office of the Chief Constable of Police Scotland admitted that it failed to ensure that people, including Lamara and John, were not exposed to risks to their health and safety by failing to provide an “adequate and reliable call-handling system” between April 1 2013 and March 1 2016.
It also failed to ensure the system was “not vulnerable to unacceptable risks arising from human error” and to ensure that all relevant information reported by members of the public was recorded on a Police Scotland IT system so that it could be considered and a police response provided where appropriate.
The force admitted that as a result, members of the public were exposed to risks to their health and safety and, in particular on July 5, 2015, a police officer at the force call-handling centre at Bilston Glen failed to record a phone call from a member of the public reporting that a vehicle was at the bottom of an embankment at the side of the eastbound junction nine slip road from the M80 on to the M9.
The indictment says the phone call was not recorded on any Police Scotland IT system and the failure went unnoticed with “no proper consideration of the report and no opportunity for an appropriate response from Police Scotland”.
The force admitted Lamara and John remained “unaided and exposed to the elements” in the car between July 5 and 8 2015 and that the failings “materially contributed” to her death at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow.
The force pleaded guilty to breaching the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.
Sir Stephen House, who was chief constable at the time of the incident, stepped down from the role at the end of 2015 following controversy over the deaths.