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How frequently should landowners inspect trees abutting high risk areas?

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By David Williams & John Goodman


Published 06 November 2018


The question of whether a local authority landowner was negligent in setting the frequency of its inspection of trees was considered by the Court of Appeal in the recent judgment in Witley Parish Council v Cavanagh (2018), the tree in question having blown down in a storm, crushing a bus driven by the Claimant and causing him to suffer serious injuries.  The local authority had a policy of inspecting all trees on its land every three years, and the accident occurred as the third anniversary of the last inspection approached.

The lime tree was mature and large, leaned over a busy main road and was next to a bus stop.  It was agreed that, if it were to fall, it would cause significant damage including damage to a house across the road from it.  The local authority had inspected trees in high risk areas annually, but amended its policy to inspect all trees every three years.

The independent contractor engaged by the local authority to inspect trees recorded that his reports were valid for two years, and the Forestry Commission gave guidance recommending that large trees next to main roads should be subject to more rigorous inspections due to the level of hazard they presented.  Had the tree in question been inspected every two years, the decay which led it to fall would have been discovered prior to the accident. 

The trial judge, whose judgment was upheld by the Court of Appeal, concluded that, taking into account the location, age and size of the tree, it should have been inspected at least every two years and therefore the local authority had been in breach of duty.

Whilst the move from tiered inspection frequencies to a standard whereby all trees on its land were inspected every three years was caused by a reduction in the resources available to the authority, the increase in the period between inspections of this tree was contrary to the guidance of the Forestry Commission and recommendations of the inspector and the local authority was negligent in failing to inspect the tree and  remove it before it fell.

This was not a case handled by ourselves, but we feel it is important to take note of it.  This Judgment will be a challenge to hard pressed local authorities, but tree inspection regimes, especially in potentially high risk areas, should be reviewed in light of this decision.