Wigan Council falls for the snow myth

Ooops, not quite all good new on the snow myth-busting front. Despite good news from many parts of the country about councils laying to rest the myths around people being sued if they clear snow from outside their own homes, Wigan Council has gone for reinforcing rather than rejecting the legal myths:

HOMEOWNERS and businesses could risk being sued for clearing snow from the front of their premises if someone slips or falls, legal experts at Wigan Council have warned…

With more snow forecast for this weekend, Wigan Council’s borough solicitor Kevin Lawson said: “It is the council’s responsibility, so far as is reasonably practicable, to ensure that safe passage along a highway is not endangered by snow or ice.

“All available council operatives were redeployed to snow clearing duties in the town centres, medical facilities and other locations after the heavy snowfall just before Christmas, but we do appreciate the public’s efforts.

“Private landowners are not obliged to clear snow or ice from the highway. If they do and they create a hazard or danger that results in an injury to another, it is possible that they could be held liable for those injuries, but that would depend on the particular facts of the case.” (Wigan Today)

Snow tracksIt’s a classic poor legal response, because whilst nothing in the quote is untrue the way it is worded gives the wrong impression of the actual legal risks involved. Because the reality is that no-one so far has been able to identify any case of someone ever being successfully sued in the UK (or even cases going to court and being lost). A good answer would accurately reflect the position by putting it the other way round – pointing out how no-one has been sued and if you carry out normal snow clearing behaviour you can’t be sued.

If you are wondering whether this is just a case of a local newspaper inaccurately editing an answer from a council lawyer – it seems not, because the council’s press team has declined to respond to a question that gave them the chance to say just that. The council’s press office has also declined to other questions on the matter, included whether they agree with the very different tenor of legal advice given by central government and if not, why not.

Having these sorts of legal scare stories raised in the local press and then declining to comment is underwhelming, to put it mildly. Wigan could and should learn from what others have been saying, and fighting rather than encouraging mythical fears.

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12 Comments

  • Harry Hayfield 9th Jan '11 - 11:02pm

    That was the exact same reason given to me by Cllr. Hag Harris (Lab, Lampeter on Ceredigion Council) when I asked him why the pavements of Lampeter couldn’t be made accessible following a severe snowfall on November 30th 2010.

  • Mike(The Labour one) 10th Jan '11 - 1:27am

    The only objectionable bit is the way that the paper put the ‘possibility of getting sued’ centre stage in that first paragraph. There’s nothing objectionable about the quote supplied by the legal team. What myth exactly are they spreading?

    ‘All available council operatives were redeployed to snow clearing duties in the town centres, medical facilities and other locations after the heavy snowfall just before Christmas, but we do appreciate the public’s efforts.

    “Private landowners are not obliged to clear snow or ice from the highway. If they do and they create a hazard or danger that results in an injury to another, it is possible that they could be held liable for those injuries, but that would depend on the particular facts of the case.’

    Perfectly true. Would it be better to pretend that people who do ‘create a hazard or danger that results in an injury to another’ won’t get in trouble for it?

    Wouldn’t be that it’s a Labour council would it?

  • The point is that it’s not a myth. Clearing away snow enthusiastically leaving ice underneath generally makes it more dangerous and you’re likely (and deserve) to be sued if someone is injured on it.

    This is all about some rose-tinted idea of a big society all clearing up because the council can’t be bothered. Drop it. And leave the snow outside your house alone. It’s safer that way.

  • Ian Sanderson – Well, that is one way of looking at it, can I posit another. I would suggest that many people actually understand health and safety very well (and I am at a loss as to what Wigan has done wrong here). The problem is not to be found in the stats on personal injury litigation, or even the courts’ decisions. The problem is the RISK of litigation, as distinct from the volume of cases. The effect of this is to ramp up insurance premiums to a level that makes things unviable. I used to run a badminton club which, following an insurance review of litigation risk, had to close because we could not afford to insure against potential litigation. The HSE did not close us down, the risk of no win no fee litigation very much did. Look at things like public toilets being closed, trees hacked down, playgrounds dismantled. Maybe the litigation was not real, but the RISK is.
    I did like the bit in the article, ‘whether they agree with the very different tenor of legal advice given by central government and if not, why not.’ One can only hazard a guess at what the, ‘tenor,’ (whatever that means) of central advice would be if it were the centre that was bearing the litigation risk.
    You may well think that this is an overreaction, and you might be right. But the stark reality is that there are people out there simply looking to sue councils, sport clubs and the like and these people are a very large risk, regardless of whether or not that risk reifies. If you don’t believe me, go to youtube and type in Harris Fowler or injurylawyers4u.

    As an aside here, the Coalition seems to think that things like playgrounds could be maintained and run locally in the Big Society. Lawyers will be circling looking for any big society organisation to sue – I would hope the Coalition has factored insurance costs into the Big Society. Quite why anyone would want to be a school governor is beyond me.

  • Darren Reynolds 10th Jan '11 - 4:58pm

    Keep up the good work, Mark.

  • This year an old lady stopped me while I was clearing snow, and told me that because I do it every year (and grit it too), she felt confident in going out. She was on her way to the bus stop, and confident in getting into town. It was definitely safer than the other side of the road, where the snow had been compacted into ice…

  • toryboysnevergrowup 10th Jan '11 - 8:34pm

    Selective quotation to try and make a fairly cheap political point I’m afraid. The article also said the following:

    “Council legal experts admitted there is a legal risk to private landowners if conditions are made worse by their attempts to clear snow or ice.”

    The moral being don’t make things worse – just better and there is nothing to fear.

    If you want a cheap political point – what about the criticism of the LibDem council in Warrington who failed to clear the streets and pavements for a council byelection – which you lost nevertheless.

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