• Follows Priory Healthcare indicating it would plead guilty at earlier hearing
  • Prosecutor had initially suggested a £2.4m fine as starting point
  • But group successfully argued failures it was being sentenced for did not directly contribute to 14-year-old’s death

A private hospital group has been fined £300,000 after a 14-year-old NHS-funded patient died in its care.

Priory Healthcare Ltd had indicated it would plead guilty to an offence under the Health and Safety at Work Act at a magistrates court hearing in January. Today, it was fined £300,000 at Lewes Crown Court and ordered to pay costs of £65,801.

The offence – failing to discharge its duty to ensure people were not exposed to health and safety risks – carries an unlimited fine. The prosecutor at the earlier hearing had indicated a £2.4m fine should be the starting point.

Southern Health Foundation Trust was fined £2m last year for “systemic failures” in the cases of two patients, Connor Sparrowhawk and Teresa Colvin, who died in its care.

But in today’s case judge James Dingemans said “vital lessons have been learned” and there was now a much better understanding of young people’s suicide.The Priory Group successfully argued the failures it was being sentenced for did not directly cause the death of Amy El-Keria.

Amy was a patient in a specialist children’s mental health unit at Ticehurst House in East Sussex, run by the Priory Group. She was found unresponsive with a ligature around her neck in her room on 12 November 2012 and died the following day.

A 2016 inquest found neglect by the Priory contributed to Amy’s death. The jury for the inquest was told about inadequate staffing, high risk ligature points in her room, failure to remove a scarf from her which was used in the hanging, and a delay in calling an ambulance when she was discovered.

Amy, who was from Hounslow, had been sent to the Priory Hospital at Roehampton when no suitable NHS inpatient bed was available for her close to her home. She was then transferred to Ticehurst House.

The Health and Safety Executive investigation found failings around how the company risk assessed ligature points, the control measures introduced to reduce the risks from them, and a failure to ensure adequate review of these following concerns raised by external bodies. HSE inspector Michelle Canning said: “This is a heartbreaking case. Our detailed investigation uncovered a number of failures. Our thoughts remain with Amy’s family and we are so very sorry for their loss.”

The case has led to calls for NHS England to review its commissioning of specialist children’s mental health services from the private sector. Victoria McNally, senior caseworker at charity Inquest, said after the earlier hearing: “This family have been failed by a system that placed Amy in the care of a private company, now exposed as operating criminally inadequate standards.

“The government must now review whether the Priory is fit to receive such significant public expenditure for the provision of children’s specialist mental health care.”

In a statement, Trevor Torrington, the Priory Group’s chief executive, offered “sincere and profound apologies” to Amy’s family. He added the group planned to undertake a strategic review of inpatient child and adult mental health services to assess how best to respond to patients presenting with increasingly challenging conditions and self-harm risks.

“Priory Healthcare accepts there were certain risk management procedures in 2012 in relation to environmental audits and [basic life support] training which were not robust enough. However, the court found such shortcomings were not causative of Amy’s tragic death,” he said. “The court remarked that Priory Healthcare had treated successfully very many young patients including some young people who have been taken from the brink of despair to a life with a future.”

A Care Quality Commission inspection of Ticehurst House, carried out late last year, rated it as “good”. However, the CQC said the provider had failed to tell it about some notifiable incidents, including those involving the police.

After the sentencing, Amy’s mother Tania said: “To me the Priory [is] a morally bankrupt company. [It] continue[s] to take large sums of public money, allowing our children to suffer by placing profit over safety. This cannot be allowed to continue, and I will not stop fighting until this stops.”.

Victoria McNally, senior caseworker at Inquest, said: “The grave concerns for safety raised by Amy’s and other children’s deaths must lead to an immediate intervention by the government and an urgent review of the Priory’s fitness to deliver national CAMHS hospital services.

“The mental health minister has agreed to meet with Amy’s family and Inquest. These concerns will be matters for urgent discussion during that meeting.”

Update: This story was updated at 15:38 on 17 April 2019 to include comments from Tania El-Keria and Inquest