In an ideal world, public authorities would protect everyone against all foreseeable risks of injury. That, however, is an obviously unobtainable panacea and, as one Court of Appeal ruling showed, limits on public resources have to be taken into account when deciding whether legal duties have been breached.
The case concerned a man in his 80s who slipped on a patch of ice in an unmanned car park and broke his wrist. The local authority that owned the car park had sent out lorries to spread grit in the early hours following reports of impending bad weather. Its efforts had, however, been focused on making highways safe and the car park had not been gritted. The council accepted that its policy was reactive, in that it only spread grit in its car parks when reports of ice were received from members of the public.
In claiming £11,000 in damages, the man argued that the council had been obliged to take a more proactive approach. Traffic wardens and cash collectors visited the car park regularly and should have been instructed to report slipping hazards. Those arguments were, however, rejected by a judge and the man's claim was dismissed.
In rejecting his appeal against that ruling, the Court noted that there was generally no duty on public authorities to guard against obvious hazards. Requiring the council to grit its car parks during cold weather would involve deployment of substantial staff and material resources and would in all likelihood lead to their closure whenever temperatures fell below zero. That would cause considerable inconvenience to local people and visitors to the area.
In finding that the council had not breached its duty under the Occupiers' Liability Act 1957, the Court also noted that there had been no previous reports of slippery conditions in the car park or any previous accidents due to ice. The council had, in the circumstances, taken all steps that it was required to take to ensure that users of the car park remained reasonably safe.