Behind closed doors
Landlords are now liable for tenants making changes in their home, explains Colm Nugent, barrister at Hardwicke Chambers
On 9 July the High Court made an important ruling for social and private landlords, which has two key implications for personal injury cases in the UK: landlords may be legally liable to visitors for the acts of the tenant, and banisters are part of a building’s structure.
The case is Hannon v Hillingdon Homes Ltd. When Patrick Hannon went to fix a boiler belonging to a tenant of Hillingdon Homes in 2008, the consequences led to him losing his job, having a lifelong injury and being involved in legal proceedings for the next five years.
The tenant, Mrs Morrison, had created an open-plan staircase by removing the banisters, spindles and newel posts. Mr Hannon stumbled down the stairs, fell over the side in the absence of anything to prevent the fall and fractured his ankle.
He sued Hillingdon Homes, the landlord, under the terms of the Defective Premises Act 1972 section 4, because he said the house was ‘defective’ and the landlord had a duty to protect him, as a visitor, from any ‘relevant defect’.
The court found the landlord liable. The level of damages Mr Hannon will be awarded has yet to be determined, but is likely to be substantial as his prospects of returning to work are not good.
The court considered the following questions:
- Are banisters part of the structure?
- Was failure to replace them a ‘relevant defect’?
- Is Hillingdon Homes liable to Mr Hannon, given that the tenant removed the banisters?
- Did Hillingdon Homes know of the defect?
The judge decided that the staircase was part of the structure and that the banisters were an integral part of the staircase. In the judge’s view ‘the absence of the banisters was a defect in the state of the property’.
The landlord argued that the tenant removed the banisters in breach of her tenancy agreement, so that the landlord’s repairing obligation was to the tenant, not to visitors. The judge found that the tenant’s deliberate acts were irrelevant, because the repairing covenant in the lease was unqualified.
The judge was satisfied that the fact contractors and other workers had attended the house was sufficient to warn the landlord of the defect. There was no evidence that visitors were even aware that the banisters had been removed, since no trace of them existed.
This decision has significant implications for social and private landlords. Banisters are part of the structure and remain the landlord’s responsibility to repair and maintain. Alterations to the property by the tenant - even if done well - can still result in the landlord being sued by visitors injured as a result of those changes.
Finally, the landlord can be fixed with notice of ‘disrepair’ even in circumstances where the visiting agent is unaware that what they see is disrepair or an existing and long-standing state of the premises.