Police Scotland have been fined £100,000 after admitting failings which “materially contributed” to the death of a young mother who lay undiscovered in a car for days with her partner following a crash on the M9.
The force pleaded guilty on Tuesday to health and safety failings following the deaths of John Yuill, 28, and Lamara Bell, 25, who died after their car went off the M9 motorway near Stirling on July 5 2015.
Despite a call being made to police, the force took three days to respond and when officers finally arrived, Mr Yuill was dead while Ms Bell died four days later in hospital.
The High Court in Edinburgh heard on Tuesday Ms Bell pleaded for help after being found and would probably have survived had this happened sooner.
“As days and hours went by she must have been in a state of disbelief that no help arose.”
He said it was “unprecedented” for Scotland’s police service to have been convicted in the High Court.
The judge said the fine took into consideration that it would be paid from the public purse and as the “normal level of fine would reduce the normal ability of the Police Service of Scotland to protect and serve the public”, and he set it at £100,000.
Ms Bell’s mother, Diane, welcomed the conviction, saying: “The absence of answers and recognition has been the biggest strain because it is the not knowing that makes everything worse.
“It has taken a long time for this conviction to be secured but it is a huge relief that Police Scotland has finally admitted being at fault for Lamara’s death.”
The court heard a member of the public noticed a blue car partly obscured by bushes off the M9 motorway and called police at 11.29am on July 5 to report it but the call handler did not create an incident on the police’s Storm IT system.
On July 8, another member of the public noticed a car at the bottom of the embankment and went to investigate, spotting two people inside.
Ms Bell, in the passenger seat, was moving her arms and moaning and asked him to, “help me, get me out”. He tried to reassure her and called 999.
Emergency services attended and the mother of two was airlifted to hospital, having suffered serious injuries including to her skull and brain, and developed acute meningitis.
Prosecutor Ashley Edwards QC said: “Various experts from a range of specialisms agreed that had Lamara Bell been admitted to hospital within six to eight hours of her primary injury, the secondary complications of the injury leading to her death would have been easier to manage and would have been substantially avoided.
“This would in all probability have led to her survival, albeit with some long-term neurological disability.”
Experts agreed his “very severe injuries” were not survivable regardless of treatment time.
The office of the Chief Constable of Police Scotland on Tuesday admitted failing to ensure people, including Mr Yuill and Ms Bell, were not exposed to health and safety risks 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 all relevant information reported by members of the public was recorded on a Police Scotland IT system so it could be considered and a police response provided where appropriate.
The force admitted 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 Service Centre failed to record a phone call from a member of the public reporting 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 phone call was not recorded on any Police Scotland IT system and no action was taken.
The force admitted Ms Bell and Mr Yuill remained “unaided and exposed to the elements” in the car between July 5 and 8 2015, and the failings “materially contributed” to her death on July 12 at Glasgow’s Queen Elizabeth University Hospital.
The force pleaded guilty to breaching the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.
Mr Yuill, a provisional licence holder, drove off the following morning in his car with Ms Bell, leaving the others sleeping.
When they failed to return home by evening, their parents reported them missing.
The court heard this was conducted “efficiently”, with one line of inquiry being the couple a car crash as Mr Yuill was an “inexperienced” driver.
The crash took place against a backdrop of police control room restructuring following the creation of Police Scotland.
Stirling and Glenrothes control rooms shut in early 2015 and their work was transferred to Bilston Glen, however, many staff did not want to relocate, leading to concerns about insufficient staffing.
Serving police officers trained to call handler level in the Storm system were offered overtime to boost staffing, including the officer who took the initial crash call.
The court heard there had been no concerns about his work previously and the incident was due to “human error”.
The current Police Scotland Chief Constable, Iain Livingstone, was in court for the hearing and offered his “profound apologies and sincere condolences” to the families of Ms Bell and Mr Yuill.
Murdo Macleod QC, representing Police Scotland, said reviews of the call handling system were carried out following the tragedy and the 38 recommendations have now been implemented.
He said: “Through significant investment and time and resources, concerted efforts have been made to ensure robust measures are in place to mitigate the risks and lessen the risk that something else might happen again.”