Courts beginning to favour councils

Stevens v County Borough of Blaenau Gwent (Court of Appeal - 15 June 2004)

The claimant, a two-year-old infant, fell from the first floor window of a house occupied by his mother, a council tenant, and owned by the defendant council. The mother had asked the local authority to fit a safety lock on the window because she had a young child in the flat whose sister had previously been found on the window ledge.

To reach the window, the child had to climb using a piece of furniture or use another object as a stepping stone. The council declined to fit an additional lock because it would create a fire hazard. After the accident, the council fitted a safety catch that the judge at first instance found would have prevented the accident if fitted earlier.

The claimant succeeded at first instance but on appeal the decision was overturned. The Court of Appeal held that the council did not have a general liability to provide safety locks for its tenants and that while children if left to their own devices might well climb onto the window sill and seek to interfere with the window catches, the council was entitled to assume appropriate vigilance and ordinary good sense on the part of the mother, by moving away anything children might use to get to the window.

The fact that the council fitted a special safety catch after the accident did not demonstrate that they were under any duty or assumed any responsibility to do so before the accident. There was no pre-existing duty on the part of the council.

COMMENT: This case emphasises the need to establish the precise scope of the duty owed by a local authority, and that the courts are taking a more restrictive approach to claims against local authorities. - David Evans, BLM Liverpool.

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