Missing Handrail - Duty does not extend to making safe or improving premises

Article

04 May, 2016

Sternbaum v Dhesi (2016) EWCA Civ 155, Dodd v Raebarn Estates Ltd (2016) EWHC 262 (QB) (QBD)

In two recent cases both concerning claims for injuries (in the case of Dodd fatal injuries) sustained on steep staircases with no handrail, the Court has considered whether the absence of a handrail amounts to disrepair pursuant to section 4 Defective Premises Act 1972.

In each of the above claims, the Claimant/ widow argued that without a handrail the stairs were in a dangerous condition, and that had there been a handrail the accident would not have happened. Further, it was contended that the staircase was part of the structure of the premises, the bannister/handrail was part of the staircase and thus was also part of the structure. When the bannister was removed the staircase became unsafe and the absence of a bannister/handrail was a relevant defect which the landlord had a duty to repair under the agreement and under s.4.

The claims failed on the basis that there was no obligation on the landlord to fit a handrail so as to make the staircase safe. There had never been a handrail at any relevant time, and to place the landlord under an obligation to fit one would amount to placing him under an obligation to improve the premises or make them safe.

Forbes comment

Pursuant to section 4 Defective Premises Act, the duty is only triggered if it is established that the premise are in disrepair. In both cases, without a handrail, the steps were steep and potentially dangerous as a result. However, that is not the test for a "relevant defect" under the Defective Premises Act. It was made clear in the two judgments that the duty to repair under s.4 of the 1972 Act was not to be equated with a duty to make safe. The duty is limited to a responsibility to put right something that was in a worse condition than it was at some previous time.

A word of caution for landlords, in the earlier case of Hannon v Hillingdon Homes 2012 EWHC 1437 QB the defendant was found liable for breach of section 4 for failing to 'repair' a bannister that had been deliberately removed by the existing tenant twenty years prior to the accident. The bannister formed part of demised premises when the tenancy commenced and therefore the failure to re-install the handrail was a "relevant defect" within the meaning of section 4 of the DPA.

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