Unsafe may not equate to defective or a breach of duty - DAC Beachcroft

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Unsafe may not equate to defective or a breach of duty

Published On: 21 March 2016

While the Defective Premises Act places a duty on landlords to repair defects in a property that has been let, the extent to which that duty requires properties to be improved or brought up to modern safety standards was considered by the Court of Appeal in its judgment of 18 March 2016 in Sternbaum v Dhesi. 

The Defendant let a property to a company which the Claimant had an interest in and the tenancy agreement provided that the Defendant would keep the structure and exterior of the property in good repair.  

The Claimant slipped as she climbed the back staircase which was steep and enclosed by walls on both sides.  She suffered injury and pursued a claim alleging that the staircase was dangerous and defective (in breach of the Defective Premises Act 1972) because it did not have a bannister.  It appeared that a bannister had, at some point in time, been fitted on the staircase, but it was not present when the Defendant acquired the property.

Section 4 of the Defective Premises Act places a duty on a landlord to repair defects which arise during the tenancy or after possession of the property is acquired in contemplation of the letting.  The duty is to take reasonable care for the safety of those who might be affected by defects which arise.  It is not a duty to make the premises safe or to update them to current safety standards prior to the tenancy. 

Whilst, in the opinion of the trial judge and also the local authority which served a notice requiring one to be fitted, the absence of a bannister meant that the property was dangerous, the trial judge found that the Defendant was not under a duty to fit a bannister and was not in breach of duty.  The claim was therefore dismissed at first instance. 

On appeal, in her lead judgment, Lady Justice Hallett DBE stated that "I have little doubt that, without a handrail, it was a hazard.  But, as unsafe as it may have been, there is nothing about it that, to my mind, could possibly justify the description of being in disrepair."  Accordingly, the Claimant's appeal failed.  

This judgment should be of assistance to landlords and their insurers who are faced with claims arising out of hazards which are already present at the beginning of a tenancy and do not comply with current standards, and confirms that, even in the face of a post-accident improvement notice from the local authority, liability may be avoided.