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Broadfield v Meyrick Estate Management, Court of Appeal, 27 July 2011

27 October 2011
The issues

Work Place (Heath Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 – staircase – trip over threshold of office doorway.

The facts

The claimant was employed as an accounts assistant by the defendant. Her office was on the first floor of an old cottage. There was a single steep staircase leading up to and including a landing. From the bottom of the stairs there was a turn to the right and straight stretch of stairs along which there was handrail to the right. From the landing there was a sharp turn to the right and the staircase included two further steps up to the office. The last riser was on line of the threshold of the office. The treads were narrow relative to their risers. It was a typical period cottage staircase. On 26 September 2005 the claimant fell as she left her office. At or immediately before the threshold of the doorway, coming out of the office, she missed her footing and tripped and fell onto the landing. Her momentum carried her down the straight staircase to her left and she fell heavily suffering fractures to the cervical and thoracic spine. It was not known what had caused the claimant to miss her footing. The claim against the defendant was that had there been a handrail present along two steps at the top of the staircase she would have been be able to regain her balance. It was common ground that inter-alia a duty was owed under regulation 12.5 of the Work Place Regulations, which provided that suitable and sufficient handrails on all traffic routes which were staircases should be provided except in circumstances in which a handrail could not be provided without obstructing the traffic route. The recorder rejected the contention that the regulation imposed a duty to fit a continuous handrail to every inch of the staircase with two or more rises. In this case that would have included the landing and the two top steps leading up to the threshold of the office. He found that the handrails fitted along the straight stretch of the staircase was suitable and sufficient all be it they did not stretch the entire length of the staircase. He found that if he was wrong about that then the statutory exception applied to the top two steps in that a handrail could not be fitted to them without obstructing the traffic route. The claimant relied upon a guide produced by the HSE in 2007, (Work Place) Heath Safety and Welfare; the statutory code of practice published by the HSE to accompany the Work Place Regulations; and upon the duty imposed by the modern building regulations that would apply if the cottage had been build today. All three documents it was argued suggested that the staircase being one staircase should have had a handrail the whole length of it unless the statutory exception applied. The judge found for the defendant. The claimant appealed.

The decision

There was little authority as to the construction of Regulation 12.5.

In Ellis v Bristol City Council the Court of Appeal had taken the view the judge should have had regard to the relevant code of practice. However, such a code did not carry the authority of the court and such guidance should always be treated with caution.

The overriding objection of the regulations was to protect the employee at work. Where there were two possible and reasonable constructions of a regulation the construction which best promoted the safety of the employee was to be preferred. The regulations were designed to provide a safe place of work, if at all possible. The code and guide explained how that could best be done. The duty placed on employers was clear. Reading the code and the regulations together, the duty was to provide a suitable and sufficient handrail on at least on side of every staircase which was a traffic route. In this case there was a duty therefore to provide a handrail on one side of the staircase including on one side of the two top stairs, unless the statutory exception applied. As to whether the duty extended to landings, would depend on the type of landing envisaged. A landing might be so extensive that it broke a staircase into two or could no longer be considered part of a staircase. It would all depend on the facts.

Did the statutory exception apply? The burden was on the employer to prove the exception and the applicable standard was that of impossibility. The judge had been wrong, given the inadequacy of the evidence called to find the defendant able to bring themselves within the statutory exception.

Had the handrail or its absence played a part in causing the accident? The claimant had been an honest witness. She had volunteered that she was hurrying to complete banking procedures before 1pm. She had also said that she would have used the handrail had there of been one. The claimant had said that she had lost her footing before she stepped down onto the step and that she stumbled straight down onto half landing. She claimed that she would have grabbed the handrail if there been one on the landing. The judge had had the benefit of a visual description of the fall by the claimant. He was in the best place to make an assessment of how the claimant would have fallen therefore having heard and considered all the material before him. He had found as a fact, that even had the handrail been present, the claimant would not have been in a position to use it. The evidence was there to support the conclusion and it was therefore open to him so to find. The appeal therefore failed. Appeal dismissed.

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The content on this page is provided for the purposes of general interest and information. It contains only brief summaries of aspects of the subject matter and does not provide comprehensive statements of the law. It does not constitute legal advice and does not provide a substitute for it.

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