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Improvement or Disrepair?

In Sternbaum v Dhesi [2016], the Court of Appeal found that a landlord was not liable when one of its tenants fell down a staircase which lacked any form of handrail or bannister. The tenant sued the landlord in negligence and for breach of section 4 of the Defective Premises Act 1972.

 

At the date of commencement of the tenancy agreement there was no handrail or bannister fitted even though the stairs were steep. There were indications that a handrail had been removed at some point but this was prior to the commencement of this tenancy.

 

The tenancy agreement required the landlord ‘to keep in repair the structure and exterior of the premises’ and the tenant was under an obligation to permit the landlord to enter the premises for the purposes of inspection and repair.

 

The Court of Appeal recognised that whilst a staircase without a handrail was hazardous, it was not defective pursuant to the Defective Premises Act. A lack of a handrail, although potentially dangerous, did not amount to disrepair and to oblige the landlord to fit a handrail would amount to requiring him to improve the premises and/or make them safe which is beyond the scope of the Act.

 

This decision introduces more certainty on the interpretation of landlords’ duty to ‘repair’ even if it might be concerning to tenants. It also highlights the gap in current repair obligations which still focus more on fairly basic obligations rather than a more general requirement for a property to be reasonably safe.

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