Summary: The Court of Appeal recently upheld the decision in the County Court that a landlord was not liable to a tenant when she fell down a staircase without a handrail or bannister. A landlord’s duty to repair and or maintain the premises could not in the circumstances be equated with a duty to make the premises safe.
Propelled by the Industrial Revolution, the United Kingdom experienced a series of successive housing booms to meet its growing population that reached their peak during the reign of Queen Victoria. These housing booms coincided with the Gothic revival architectural movement and, together, they have left an indelible mark on the style and design of houses in the United Kingdom. These houses – commonly known as “Victorian houses” – line the streets of many cities, towns and villages across the United Kingdom with sash windows, projected porches and, notably, with formidably steep staircases. St Mark’s Road in Leamington Spa is such a street, with such a Victorian house (“Premises”). The Premises contained a characteristically steep staircase that did not have a handrail or bannister fitted to it (“Staircase”).
By a tenancy agreement entered into in 2009, the landlord let the Premises to the tenant (here, the appellant). The agreement contained the following clause (which is not untypical of any tenancy agreement):
“Sections 11-16 of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 (as amended by the Housing Act 1988) apply to this Agreement. These require the Landlord to keep in repair the structure and exterior of the Premises (including the drains, gutters and pipes) and keep in repair and proper working order the installations in the Premises for the supply of water, gas, electricity, sanitation, and for space and water heating.”
In the spring of 2009, the tenant slipped and fell as she walked up the Staircase, suffering a nasty injury. The tenant sued the landlord in negligence and breach of statutory duty, contending that:
- Without a bannister or handrail, the Staircase was in a dangerous condition, and had there been a handrail the accident would have been avoided; and
- The Staircase was part of the structure of the Premises. The bannister or handrail was part of the Staircase, and therefore was also part of the structure. By the aforementioned clause, it was the landlord’s obligation to maintain and repair the structure, and in the absence of a bannister or handrail the Staircase became unsafe and was a “relevant defect”, which the landlord had a duty to repair under the tenancy agreement and under Section 4 of the Defective Premises Act 1972 (“DPA”).
In the County Court, the landlord denied that the Staircase was unsafe without a handrail or bannister. There was no handrail or bannister when the tenancy commenced, and the landlord contended that an obligation on him to install a handrail or bannister amounted to imposing on him a positive obligation to improve or make safe the Premises, and that his only obligation was to repair and maintain the Premises. Further, the landlord distinguished the present case from the decision in Hannon v Hillingdon Homes 2012 EWHC 1437 QB. In Hannon, a handrail was present at the commencement of the tenancy and had been removed, whereas in the present case there had never been a bannister or handrail. The County Court found in favour of the landlord, and held that there was no obligation on the landlord to fit a handrail or bannister so as to make the Staircase safe, and the tenant appealed to the Court of Appeal (“CA”).
The CA held that the only question before the court was whether the tenant had established that the Premises were in disrepair. A failure to do so would render any analysis of the meaning of the DPA irrelevant, as no duty of care under the DPA could have been owed by the landlord to the tenant.
The CA was provided with photographs of the Staircase and was able to determine whether it was in disrepair. Lady Justice Hallett DBE, providing the leading judgment, noted that the Staircase was of a kind found in hundreds of buildings in the United Kingdom, and acknowledged that “given the narrowness of the tread and the steepness of the flight of steps, particularly where it turns the corner, I have little doubt that, without a handrail, it was a hazard.” However, in her view, unsafe as it may have been (particularly by modern standards), there was nothing about it that could justify the description of the Staircase being in disrepair (noting that the walls and stairs themselves were apparently sound and that there is nothing wrong with the floor covering). Furthermore, pertinently, there had never been a handrail on the Staircase at any relevant time. Thus, to place the landlord under an obligation to fit a handrail in these circumstances would amount to placing him under an obligation to improve the premises or make them safe, which would be beyond the reach of his covenant under the tenancy agreement. Consequently, the CA’s finding on the issue of disrepair was sufficient to dispose of the appeal.
Landlords of these Victorian houses around the country will undoubtedly breathe a heavy sigh of relief at this outcome, although it should be stressed that this case does not establish a precedent for landlords to brazenly let unsafe or hazardous premises. As for tenants, before you enter into the tenancy agreement you should have inspected the premises carefully. If you are unhappy with the state of repair and condition of the premises, tell your agent so that some remedial works might be carried out by the landlord prior to the grant of the tenancy agreement; it seems the court are highly unlikely to require the landlord to have done that for you. If, however, you find yourself enthralled by the premises’ charm, despite its hazards, then be sure to mind your step.