Hazardous staircases under the spotlight
Wednesday, 22nd June 2016
Two recent cases have required the courts to review the duty to repair defects under Section 4 of the Defective Premises Act 1972 Act in relation to accidents involving a staircase.
In Dodd v Raebarn Estates  EWHC 262 (QB) the Claimant's husband had been tragically killed on Christmas Day after falling down a staircase while on his honeymoon.
The staircase had no hand rail. The Claimant argued that the Defendant had breached its duty to take care to ensure the reasonable safety from personal injury caused by a "relevant defect" - in this case the absence of a handrail.
On appeal the court held that a duty to repair is not the same as a duty to make a premises safe. To find in favour of the Claimant would be to impose too large a burden on landlords to put right matters which were not in their control. In this case the staircase was well made, although it was accepted that because it was steep the lack of a handrail made it potentially dangerous. However, it was not a defect "which arose from or continued because of an act or omission of the landlord". In effect, it was not out of repair.
In Sternbaum v Dhesi  EWCA Civ 155 a tenant of a Victorian building fell as she walked up a flight of stairs at the back of the building. These stairs would probably have been a servant's staircase in times gone by and were steep and had no handrail or bannisters - although there was evidence that there may have been fitted at some time in the past.
In this case the appeal judge was asked to find that the absence of a handrail was a defect which was created when the old handrail was removed and the landlord has a duty under S4 of the 1972 Act to repair the defect.
Again, the Appeal Court found that although the absence of a handrail on steep stairs did render them hazardous, there was no evidence that there had ever been a handrail and to require a landlord to fit one now would be beyond his legal obligations. Further, the stairs could not be said to be in disrepair.
Despite their hazardous nature, these staircases were in good condition. Claimants cannot rely upon s.4 of the Defective Premises Act 1972 in these types of cases unless they can show the hazard was caused as a result of a failure to repair.