Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Compensation Culture (G)rit Large

Last February I wrote this - and copped some flak for it....
Geoff Hoon has come under fire for his rather tactless comment that people should stop whingeing about the snow, and that if motorists are so concerned they should buy snow chains. However, I have some sympathy with this viewpoint.

When I lived in Germany motorists always had snow chains. They had to. They would also have winter tyres fitted. Clearly the expense of this in this country would be ludicrous, unless your car was absolutely vital to you in all weathers. Councils do have a duty to grit roads, but there is a balance to strike. Should they really invest millions of pounds in grit, gritter lorries and snow ploughs when they might only be needed once every ten or so years? If I were a councillor I doubt whether I'd vote to spend money on that over and above providing new education facilities.

But one things which does annoy me about this weather is that people in Britain seem to take no responsibility for keeping the pavement clear outside their own houses. In Germany and Switzerland it is a legal requirement for people to do that* - and not only that, but to grit the pavement too, if I remember rightly. In this country we just moan about the fact that the council has failed to get the snow of every inch of our pavements. Surely it isn't too much to ask to get people to clear their own part of the pavement each time snow falls?

And I stand by every word. Today's Telegraph story demonstrates the kind of "it's not my responsibility, guv" society we have become. Apparently people are being warned that if they clear the pavements outside their homes they could be sued if someone slips on any resultant ice. This is perverse. You do your citizenly duty and and then risk getting punished. It's the compensation culture writ large. And it's got to change. Government cannot do everything for us. Where we can, we have to act for ourselves. As someone once said, we cannot go on like this.

But here's an idea. Why don't we just change the law? Why don't we render it impossible to sue someone if they have done the right thing and cleared snow outside their property? Indeed, let's go one step futher and adopt the same laws that they have in Germany, Switzerland, the USA and Canada? All we need is an MP to do it... (get my [snow] drift?!)


Brian said...

Iain, it's the No Win-No Fee Lawyers chasing after Tort of Nuisance work that causes the problem. Lawyers like to hide behind the very reasonable "reasonableness test" for all areas of litigation but only so long as it's decided by lawyers - to ensure work for lawyers.

Unknown said...

Harriet Harman told us last week that we won't get sued as "common sense" would prevail-This is the "court of public opinion " defence which she used so successfully on Friday when escaping what would have been 6 points (and thus a ban because of totting up)and much higher fine for any other driver. That's all the assurance I need :)

'However, nobody should go round encouraging the notion that there are nonsensical provisions waiting to entrap people who are using their common sense. There are not. I therefore assure the hon. Gentleman's constituents, as the Transport Minister did, that everybody can do what is commonsensical. If it is commonsensical, we can be pretty certain that it will be absolutely within the law.'

Anonymous said...

If we did this I would become responsible for a big chunk of an A road - which would be odd. And who would clear the M20? I only ask....

MikeyP said...

Presumably, we will get a rebate from our council tax after the failure to grit. No? Oh what a surprise!

Unknown said...

Ok, so here we go. I need someone who is English to explain this one to me because in Canada and the States it is simple, you have 24 hours to clear your walkway, and your drive so the postman can deliver the post, otherwise you get fined, and the local auth. will come around and clean it for you and charge you on top of the fine.

It does not matter if you are 80 years old, you must clean your drive, or someone can do it for you, but 24 hours it must be done. Otherwise if someone slips and falls, guess what you get sued when they fall.

Now, in this country you can get sued if you clean your walkway? HOW DOES THAT WORK? I mean its covered in snow, and you can not even leave your own house for fear of breaking a leg, its your walkway!!

I think I better fall over and sue the council, as I could if I trip on the sidewalk during the summer, so maybe the council should be cleaning their sidewalk!

Is there anyone in this country with a brain?

Dr Gonz said...

Snow chains are only compulsory in Germany on certain roads, typically in mountainous areas. However, winter tires are extremely common, and if you drive without them on snow and have an accident, your car insurance will not cover you, as you will be guilty of contributory negligence. So this isn't so much the heavy hand of the state requiring you to carry chains, so much as making people responsible for their own actions.

Anonymous said...

It is also law, in Germany, that "suitable tyres" are fitted to your car. In winter, that means winter tyres. If you don't fit them, your car is regarded as being unroadworthy - with all the consequences, should you be in an accident.

Summer tyres harden at 10°C and do not have a tread pattern designed for travelling over snow.. They become unroadworthy. I read a study that showed that Britain has 6 months when the average temperature is below 10°. If you buy winter tyres and run them for 6 months, you are spending no more on tyres (other than an additional set of rims) than by running two sets of summer tyres over the same period.

On the other hand, you are increasing your chances of being mobile and of not being involved in a self-inflicted accident.

Martin said...

"We cannot go on like this" is just a whinge. We all have a responsibility to do better than that. I have cleared about half the width of the path in front of my house. Bugger the compensation nonsense, the newspaper article you quote mentions the urban myth that you can get sued, but without any case law to back it up. I for don't believe it.

Road_Hog said...

Iain, why should I clear my path and laying myself open to being sued by some sponger. As it is, if they slip over and brak their neck it is an act of God, not my problem. The perverseness of it is that someone can sue me for doing a good deed. This could be sorted quite easily by having the law changed so that you can't be sued and then we could all become good citizens.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately it's been that way for some time. Last year, as well as this, my local pub's car park is covered in snow and ice, so too is the pavement in front of it. The landlord was told any changes or improvements to his car park would mean he would bear responsibility for an accident to property or person. Therefore he leaves it as it is so no-one can get in or out and reducing his much needed takings.

Anonymous said...

Iain: I wrote a post rather like that too in my local newspaper, but in fairness, I believe that, as the law stands (and has done for some considerable time), once you do something to the pavement outside your house, it becomes your responsibility.. ie, if someone falls and breaks their leg, they can sue you!

I bet they don't that that stupid law in Germany.

Alan Douglas said...

When I lived in Vienna in the '50s the law said every householder HAD to have his pavements cleared by some ghastly hour of the morning, something like 0700.

Alan Douglas

Dick Puddlecote said...

RoSPA are saying that, but the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers say the opposite.

4. I've cleared the snow from our driveway. Am I opening myself up to a claim if someone slips?

This is an urban myth. If you do the reasonable thing and clear your drive, you are not opening yourself up to a possible claim, except in very exceptional circumstances.

"This is a common misconception," McQuater [from the AoPIL] says. "By clearing the snow from your paths, you do not invite any extra liability that wouldn't have existed had you done nothing and left the snow on the ground. The only circumstance in which you might invite a claim was if you acted completely unreasonably, and somehow created a new latent hazard that had not existed before your actions."

For example, if you poured huge quantities of water on to your drive which then froze to create a dangerous hazard, that in theory might open you up to a claim, he suggests.

So who to believe?

howard thomas said...

"might only be needed every 10 years or so". In Reading they have been needed in February 2009......then again in December )(twice).....and now again in January 2010.
Does that mean we are safe for the next 40 years?
Ploughing /gritting equipment should be looked on as if it was an insurance have to have it, but hope never to have to use it!

Commonsense party

Nich Starling said...

Iain, I blogged similarly to this last week. We sit back in this country and expect the council to do it. I myself have cleared the front of my hose and the road outside my house. Nobody else down my road has bothered at all. What do they do ? They drive on the wrong side of the road so they can drive past my house and get grip. Why don't they do it themselves ? It took me just 10 minutes to do.

Bob Piper said...

tris at 1.28pm...

I bet they don't that that stupid law in Germany.

Which stupid law is that then? The Suing Householders When You Slip On The Pavement Act?

Please protect us from these people.

Road_Hog said...

@Martin, It is not an Urban myth. The law is quite clear, leave your path/the pavement as it is and it is an act of God if someone slips and you can't sue God. Once you touch that snow, you then become liable if something happens. Lord Davies said: "No householder is at all responsible, providing they do not touch the pavement, which is owned by the local authority."

Lord Davies of Oldham

But he added: "The moment they address the issue of the pavement with a view to improving things, which may lead to a deterioration, it may be their action that makes them culpable." Unfortunately 6 years later, nothing has changed.

Span Ows said...

Even in sunny (today) Spain there is a requirement to own and USE chains on some roads at certain times of year (weather dependent!)the police stop and search and cars without chains are not allowed to go any further.

Gareth said...

"Indeed, let's go one step futher and adopt the same laws that they have in Germany, Switzerland, the USA and Canada?"

I disagree with Government dictated insistence that people clear public spaces.

Winter tyres sound like a good idea. Anyone know if buses and ambulances routinely get fitted with them?

Dick Puddlecote,

The RoSPA thing appears to apply to your own private property, not the public footpath.

I would guess that if you clear the footpath and do a proper job, putting grit or salt down afterwards to prevent ice from forming you'd have nothing to fear from someone threatening to sue you. They would surely have to prove you made matters worse for you to lose in court.

Anonymous said...

Like @Martin, I'm the only person in my street (of about 150 terraced houses) who has cleared the footpath for the length of my frontage, and like him I think this is whiney tabloid myth making of the straight banana school. Has anyone ever been sued for clearing the footpath outside their home? No. Is this an excuse for lazy householders to do nothing? Yes.

Weygand said...

And the wording of such a new law would be?

The problem with the public highway is that (unlike one's own property), there is no duty to intervene, so it is only by actually doing so that one can incur liability.

Unless you give carte blanche to every lunatic to perform any crazy stunt, then one is going to have to apply some test of reasonableness, ie end up with the law as it already is.

DiscoveredJoys said...

I live in a house on the corner of two roads so I have a 'kerbage' of around 30m. If the snow is 10cm deep that is 3 cubic metres of snow to shift.

Where do I put it? It is not mine, I don't want some council jobsworth accusing me of stealing it (think it wouldn't happen?). If I put it in the gutter I could be accused of blocking drainage, or some mad cycling fanatic will accuse me of blocking the carriageway, or someone accusing me of blocking a parking space. You may like to think that it won't happen but experience with councils and fines for various 'bin' offences...

So until the issue of public liability is resolved, including disposal of the cleared snow, and until arrangements are made for householders who are too old or frail to shift large quantities of snow... the damn stuff can lay there until it melts.

Dave H said...

A relative of mine went on a first aid course a while back. She was afterwards told that the official advice is against administering first aid to a casualty unless you have the appropriate liability insurance.

So we now have a society in which coming to the assistance of the injured, one the better parts of human nature, carries the risk of a heavy penalty. Something’s truly rotten in the state of Britain.

BTW Re. ‘Gas supplies are not running out’. That ought to be reassuring. Unfortunately, rather like an inverse of the ‘Simon Says’ game, the Gordon Says Rule tells us that the opposite is true.

Sure enough, even in the same news broadcast, R4 informed us that major industrial consumers were being warned to cut back. Heigh ho, business as usual from Gordy.

Robert said...

I have used snow chains in this country on one occasion in 1987. They were very good until the snow drifted and lifted the wheels of the ground.

Snow chais when used with no snow damage the road so you can only use them when there is good snow cover. They also damage your tyres and car if badly fitted.

Snow tyres are expensive and have to be fitted, stored when not in use and not very good above 10 degrees C.

Titus Aductas states that 6 months of the year UK temperatures are below 10 degrees C. That is usually at night when I for one do not drive much or in the north of Scotland where I do not go.

I see no need for snow tyres here unless we get colder winters.

Osama the Nazarene said...

If I lived in Scotland then I would expect the council to invest heavily in salt/grit and snow clearing machinery as they get snow in large quantities EVERY year.

The Grim Reaper said...

Iain, what about people who, through no fault of their own, can't keep their own driveways clear?

Case in point - my girlfriend. I live with her in Northern Ireland and she has to use a frame in order to walk. She has to use a wheelchair sometimes too. Thankfully, I'm able to keep the outside of the house and the driveway up to the house clear. But what if I wasn't around - how would you expect her to do the job?

Twig said...

The weather man on LBC said that if you throw salt on the snow it will melt it unless the temperature falls below 8c, in which case the melted snow will refreeze into black ice.

Iain Dale said...

Grim Reaper, Presumably the Germans and Swiss have thought of this and have amended their rules accordingly. So could we.

JMB said...

I am always amused by the people moaning about pavements not being gritted as they walk around in smooth soled shoes.

The pavement plough / gritted usually comes up past my house soon after 09:00h if there has been fresh snow but some Scottish councils just get on the with the job.

Similar to the people moaning about the lack of preparedness by the council in their car with no shovel in the boot, no warm clothing, no blanket.......

I used to have chains for my car but they no longer fit my current car so perhaps get some for next Winter - not need for some years because I had a 4WD car until last year.

Anonymous said...

People NOT clearing the pavement in front of their property is all we can expect from this age of cradle-to-grave state "care".

In the 1960's in Aberdeen we used to have the umemployed out clearing the streets after a heavy snowfall. A simple solution to a simple problem.

javelin said...

I pay taxes and expect a man with a shovel. The Government pay for outreach coordinators why can't they outreach and shovel the snow. My girlfriend is always complaining that I leave the toilet seat up. Why can't Gordon Brown get me somebody round to put it down? Doesn't Gordon know Im f&(king lazy and have a right to have Government help. Where's his Labour investment when you need it.

Lola said...

Do NOT change the law to make it a requirement to clear snow from outside our own property. Think about it. What will the Council do? It'll employ an army of inspectors with cameras to make sure that you do and set out to make a shed load of cash from the resulting 'penalties'.

Anonymous said...

On your own land, it's pretty simple. You owe visitors a duty under the Occupiers Liability Act 1984 to take reasonable care to ensure that they are reasonably safe. So you are obliged to eg clear the path to your door so that postie can deliver your mail.

Under Section 41(1A) of the Highways Act 1980, the council must ensure that safe passage along a highway is not endangered by snow or ice. The highway includes the pavement, and in theory you could apply for a court order to get them to clear it.

As has been mentioned above, the onus would be on the slippee to prove that you had deliberately tried to make the pavement more dangerous, such as by pouring water on it or clearing snow to reveal an ice sheet underneath. And even if they tried to give it a go, your legal bills would be covered by the personal liability cover of your house insurance.

Also, be sensible - don't clear the whole pavement, just enough for people to walk down. Not only does that mean that any pedestrian has the option of walking down untouched snow/ice (neutering many legal arguments) but it's generally safer in any case, the original snow can be safer first thing, the cleared area safer once that thin film of ice has melted in the morning.

So it's not quite an urban myth, more a theoretical thing that doesn't happen in practice. Me, I've been clearing from my house down to the old lady two doors down whenever we've had fresh snow lately. Today we've had the first real risk of meltwater refreezing, and I made a footpath of one shovel width down about 200yds of the pavement on the other side of the street, which is the side most people use and which will be lethal if it freezes tonight. Took almost no time, but I feel very virtuous having done it. :-)

Simon Lamb said...

Most people use this kind of story (the FT had a similar one yesterday) as a justification to do nothing. Newspaper stories about red wine serve the same purpose: they allow people to behave as they want without a guilty conscience.

I have yet to see any cases cited. I'm sure if someone is grossly negligent - using boiling water to melt ice, for example - they deserve to be sued but in real world of shovels and brooms I can't believe this is the kind of behaviour that will end in a court appearance.
If I'm wrong, we really are going to the dogs.

Anonymous said...

Two things I meant to mention :

Check whether there's local byelaws on this stuff, I know some local authorities have byelaws about clearing pavements of snow.

As has been mentioned, it's a bit rich expecting local authorities to invest millions in equipment for snow if you've not made any provision yourself. Snow chains aren't ideal for the typical British situation (particularly in West Kent, other parts of the county are much better) where you may have to go over several miles of ungritted local roads before getting onto a well-gritted main road that's down to the tarmac. Wheel socks may be a better answer for that mix of conditions and are not particularly expensive, like <£100.

Twig said...

@Simon Lamb

" real world of shovels and brooms I can't believe this is the kind of behaviour that will end in a court appearance.
If I'm wrong, we really are going to the dogs."

Maybe it wouldn't end in a court appearance, but would you take that risk? Think of the aggravation involved in trying to defend your actions, however well intentioned.

And as for “going to the dogs”, that's the expression that crossed my mind last week while driving under a pedestrian footbridge on the M1 dodging lumps of ice being thrown by children.

And if you still need convincing that we’re going to the dogs then read the flwg:

1. Snowball Death

2. Have-A-Go Hero Stabbed To Death

3. David Joslin

And there's plenty more where that came from.

Tim Leunig said...

has anyone actually been sued? I cleared 400m today...

Weygand said...

Is not one of the constant Conservative complaints (and rightly so) that this government has stuffed the statute book with all sorts of unnecessary and counterproductive rubbish?

Yet in recent weeks this very site has suggested that one might consider legislating re attacking burglars (the Grayling bollocks) and now this.

In both cases, any lawyer would tell you that the law as it stands is pretty much as you are advocating it should be.

Please do not fall into the same trap of ignorance/populism that has beset Labour.

Please let us have a moratorium on 'Iain's Laws'.

hobbituk said...

It's no good cleaning the path without putting grit down. Ordinary salt is no good - it refreezes.

I think the main problem has been that it is almost impossible for members of the public to get hold of any grit.

Ross said...

I asked my MP (David Howarth - also an academic and a lawyer) about this, and he has responded, debunking it: