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Landlords owe a duty of care to their tenants and must make sure, as far as is reasonably possible, that their rental properties are safe, both at the commencement and during the course of a tenancy.
So held the Court of Appeal in a decision that re-emphasises the need for landlords to know every inch of their properties and to take responsibility for neutralising possible hazards, say Sharon Betton.
The 2019 Court of Appeal case, Rogerson v Bolsover, involved a council-owned property let by Bolsover District Council and the requirements of the Defective Premises Act 1972.
But a duty of care is also enshrined in the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985. Private landlords must provide only property that is safe and secure to occupy.
This responsibility extends to maintaining the structure and exterior of their dwellings in good repair, also basins, sinks, baths and other sanitaryware, and heating and hot water installations.
The difficulty in the Bolsover case was that the quite serious injuries suffered by the tenant were caused by a badly corroded manhole cover in the lawn area of the garden that was not owned by the landlord.
The tenancy commenced on 15 July 2013, but the first time the tenant was able to mow the grass was 7 September 2014. It is probable that the grass was badly over-grown on the day she moved in; many tenants do not have the wherewithal to work on a jungle-like mess immediately, waiting to borrow mowers, shears and the like or until they can afford to buy a mower. Whatever the reason, the tenant wanted to make a difference to the lawn and pushed the mower over the manhole cover, which collapsed, causing her injury.
The tenant was behaving in a tenant-like manner and believed the landlord was responsible. The landlord, on the other hand, argued that the manhole, which allowed access to the sewerage system, did not belong to it and was the responsibility of the water company.
It appears that on first hearing, the Courts did not agree, in view of the difficulties over ownership of the manhole, that the landlord was responsible. The Court of Appeal found differently.
It held that whilst there was no dispute about ownership, the landlord had a responsibility to inspect the property before letting it and to ensure there were no safety issues. There was not necessarily a duty to make regular inspections thereafter, this was a matter of specific circumstances, but of course an eye should be kept on possible safety issues uncovered by the initial inspection.
The landlord did in fact inspect the property at the outset, but did not find the corroded manhole cover, or anything else that seemed hazardous.
Surveyors instructed on the case said that despite the overgrown nature of the garden, the landlord should have spotted the danger lurking beneath the grass. Had the grass around the cover been moved, corrosion would have been obvious and a simple pressure test would have revealed it to be unstable. The landlord should then have reported this to the relevant water company and asked it to make the cover safe.
This did not happen.
It is the stuff of nightmares to imagine a young child being the victim and falling into sewage.
This seems a complex case and involved a local authority with the means to fight (unsuccessfully) the case made against it. Many private landlords will not have the means to fight a big court case.
If a landlord walked into his or her property and found a tenant living with multiple electrical plugs leading off one socket, he or she would immediately advise this tenant of the dangers of this. And the landlord should consider installing more sockets to ensure the safety of his tenant. Should the tenant refuse but continue to use unsafe appliances, the landlord would have no option but to issue notice. To fail to take the necessary action would be negligent.
Should there be a fire, fire safety officers would identify the cause and it would be no excuse for the landlord to say ‘I don’t own the appliances that caused the fire’?
The same applies to the manhole cover in the garden.
Some landlords will have the good sense to make notes detailing the times they have inspected their properties and any conversations about safety requirements they have had with their tenants. Many will not.
Make sure you know your property inside out and are aware of potential dangers. Take responsibility for any possible hazard, not because you are responsible for repairs, but because you are responsible for ensuring it proves no risk to your tenants.