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Dangerous premises may not be defective premises

27 June 2017

The case of Dodd v Raeburn Estates Ltd has reaffirmed the important distinction between potentially dangerous premises and disrepair for the purposes of the Defective Premises Act 1972 (DPA), with the Court of Appeal finding that the freeholder of a building was not liable for the death of the claimant’s husband who fell down a dangerous staircase in the building, concluding that there is no obligation to remedy inherent defects or to take steps to put premises into a safer condition.

The key issue in Dodd was whether there was a liability on the freeholder of premises arising from a staircase which a developer had installed in a flat complex. On the face of it, the staircase was potentially hazardous - it was steeper and shallower than shown on the original plan and had no handrail. It was also contrary to building regulations. However, the lower courts rejected the claimant’s arguments that the duty of repair on the freeholder extended to remedying any inherent defects and found that the staircase, whilst unsafe, was well constructed, was not out of repair, and therefore did not constitute a “relevant defect” for the purposes of the DPA. 

The claimant appealed the decision, alleging that by removing an original staircase, the developer had caused damage to the physical condition of the building, had failed to remedy that damage in installing a staircase which did not comply with building regulations and there was therefore a duty on the freeholder to rectify the breach. The Court of Appeal disagreed, finding that the head lease allowed the developer to make alterations to the building and as such the removal of the old staircase did not amount to damage. As the new staircase never had a handrail and there was no deterioration to the fabric of it, there was no obligation to repair it. The appeal was dismissed.

At first blush the decision may seem a harsh one – there was no right of action against those responsible for premises which, it would appear to be accepted, presented a hazard to users. However, the case reinforces an established principle that the DPA does not require improvements to premises. There is no obligation to make premises safe and it is apparent from the decision in Dodd that principle is here to stay – in the absence of disrepair there will be no liability under the DPA, even in circumstances where the premises are dangerous.

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