Risk Assessment of Trees on School Property

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18 January, 2023

Rebecca_McCreadie
Rebecca McCreadie
Solicitor

Newcastle City Council have recently been fined £280,000 due to the tragic death of a six-year-old girl, who sadly died at school after being struck by a falling tree. The fatality is a stark reminder of the necessity for Councils to prioritise the safe management of trees on school land.

Facts of the Case

In this case, Newcastle City Council, were found to have breached Section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 in failing to:

'detect and take care of a decaying tree that later fell on a school playground resulting in the death of a six-year-old girl,' on 25 September 2020.S1

Several other children also sustained superficial injuries due to the incident.

The Health and Safety Executive ('HSE') subsequently undertook an investigation into the fatal incident. It was found that Newcastle City Council had failed to identify the risk and/or the extent of decay the tree had suffered prior to the incident occurring.

The HSE Report identified that six inspections of the trees at the school were undertaken by members of Newcastle City Council's arboriculture team between February 2018 and June 2020.2 When this specific tree was inspected in February 2018, it was found that 'further investigation' was required due to some decay.

At the time of the February 2018 inspection, the Council were in the process of transferring to a new IT tree management system. Although five subsequent tree inspections took place at the school, and were recorded on the new management system, the initial recommendation from the February 2018 inspection was recorded on the old IT system. As a result, the outcome was never communicated to the school, nor acted upon.3 Furthermore, it appears that the Council had also sent the report to a different school in error.4

The HSE Officer stated that if an investigation had taken place, the extent of the decay would have been revealed and the tree would have been felled.5

On 10 January 2023, Newcastle City Council pleaded guilty to breach of Section 3(1) of the 1979 Act, at South Tyneside Magistrates' Court. Ben Compton (KC) represented Newcastle City Council at the hearing. Mr Compton explained that although the school had a 'tree strategy… the tree should have been felled.'6

Newcastle City Council were ordered to pay a £280,000 fine, in addition to costs in the sum of £8,020.

Legal Obligations

Various Statutes and regulations create duties of care to preserve health and safety for visitors and employees. The statutory obligations include:

  1. Section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 states that every employer has a duty:

"to conduct his undertaking in such a way as to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that persons not in his employment who may be affected thereby are not thereby exposed to risk to their health and safety." 7

  1. The Occupiers' Liability Act 1957 places obligations on the occupier to protect those entering a site.

It is clear that Local Authorities have a duty under Statute to ensure that trees, particularly in public places such as schools, are routinely inspected and that any resulting risks are acted upon with urgency. This will help prevent risk to the public's health and safety while on Local Authority land. Indeed, the HSE Report noted that "organisations with a responsibility to manage tree health must understand the importance of ensuring that trees in places where there are people, such as playgrounds and schools, are routinely inspected and any faults identified are appropriately managed." 8

Forbes' Comment

This case is a tragic reminder to Local Authorities and education providers of the necessity to have an efficient 'Tree Management' policy and communication process in place so that identified hazards are identified and necessary action taken promptly. Routine checks of trees are essential, especially in places visited frequently by the public.

It should be impressed upon Governors, Trustees and Senior Management that whilst the obligation to fell or cut back dangerous (or potentially dangerous) trees often lies with the Local Authority, this is not always the case. Where poor tree health poses a risk to staff, pupils or visitors from whatever source, appropriate safety checks and procedures need to be implemented by the school, and where a risk is identified, the school must take interim safety measures (for example fencing off the area near the tree) until those identified to hold responsibility for the tree have dealt with the matter.

1 City council fined £280k over death of school girl hit by falling tree (localgovernmentlawyer.co.uk)

2 Newcastle City Council fined £280k for failing to remove rotten willow tree that crushed six-year-old school girl | IOSH Magazine

3 Newcastle City Council fined after decaying tree collapsed on girl - BBC News

4 Newcastle City Council fined £280k for failing to remove rotten willow tree that crushed six-year-old school girl | IOSH Magazine

5 Newcastle City Council fined £280k for failing to remove rotten willow tree that crushed six-year-old school girl | IOSH Magazine

6 Newcastle City Council fined after decaying tree collapsed on girl - BBC News

7 Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 (legislation.gov.uk)

8 Newcastle City Council fined over death of Ella Henderson, 6, who was hit by falling tree at school | ITV News Tyne Tees

For more information contact Rebecca McCreadie in our Insurance department via email or phone on 01254 222389. Alternatively send any question through to Forbes Solicitors via our online Contact Form.

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