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Stevens v County Borough of Blaenau Gwent, Court of Appeal, 15 June 2004

23 June 2004
The issues

Local Authority – Failed to Install Safety Lock on Window of Local Authority Accommodation – Child Fell from First Floor Window – Whether the Local Authority was Liable – Occupiers Liability

The facts

Mrs Stevens and her husband were joint tenants of 8 Hillcrest View, Cwmtillery, Abertillery. The house was on three floors with the main living room at first floor level. From the main living room there was access by a glass door onto a small balcony. A little bit to the right was a double glazed window in two vertical sections. The left section being non-opening and the right section, opening outwards. There was no balcony beneath it and a drop of some 10 feet. The window was secured with rotating latches.

A small child could not open the window from a position standing on the floor. A child could from the narrow internal windowsill but could not get onto the windowsill other than by using a piece of furniture or some object at lower level as a stepping stone.

Mrs Stevens asked the local authority to place a lock on the window, particularly after having found the Claimant then aged 4 sitting on the sill of the open window with her legs dangling outside. The local authority refused on the grounds that it would be against fire regulations. She asked if she could fit a lock herself but was told that she should not also because of the fire risk.

In February 1999 the Claimant then aged 2 years and 3 months managed in the absence of his mother or any witness to open the window and fell out sustaining a serious injury. Subsequently Gwent fitted a safety catch the window of a type which operated at the top of the window and which prevented it from opening more than 2 or 3 inches. The Judge found that had such a catch been in position at the time it would have prevented the accident from happening.

At Trial the case on the basis of occupiers liability was abandoned because Gwent were not occupiers of the property. The Judge found that the local authority had been specifically warned of the danger and had been asked to take steps to minimise it and had refused to do so relying on a blanket policy of not fitting window locks. Following Stockley v Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council the Judge found for the Claimant.

The Defendant appealed.

The decision

1. The Judge was wrong to find assistance in Stockley. In Stockley the Court of Appeal proceeded on the basis that the Council had a duty of care to prevent damage to its tenants from flooding occurring from burst pipe in a loft – which part of the house was in the control of the Council. In that case the Court of Appeal had found that the Council had known of an emergency and having told the tenant that they would get someone out as soon as possible should have warned her to turn her stop cock off and given her further advice. In this case there was no emergency or external threat calling for Council action or which imposed upon it a duty to act.

2. There was no question of any breach of Gwent’s duty as a Local Authority landlord either under the tenancy agreement, the Housing Act or any other Statute. Nor was it suggested that in the absence of complaint from Mrs Stevens, the window represented any hidden, special or exceptional danger which should have alerted the Council to the need to make an exception to its “no locks” policy.

3. It was necessary therefore for the Claimant to succeed for it to be shown that communications between the Council and Mrs Stevens were such as to give rise to a duty of care to provide a special “child proof” safety catch.

4. Mrs Stevens had requested window “locks”. The Council were entitled to take a view that its policy arrived at on the basis of a balance of risk should be applied in the absence of evidence that its application presented exceptional risk to the safety of the family. There was no evidence that it did. The Council were entitled to assume that Mrs Stevens would be vigilant and apply good sense by moving from the windowsill the television or any piece of furniture upon which the child was prone to climb.

5. Mrs Stevens never asked for or suggested a safety catch. It was not apparent that at the time of her complaint the existence of such a device was or should have been known to Gwent. The fact that Gwent made enquiries after the accident as to their availability did not demonstrate that they were under any duty or assumed any responsibility to do so before the accident.

Appeal allowed

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