In a unique case which weighed the private interests of commercial tenants against the public safety duties owed by local authorities, Hastings Borough Council was left facing a substantial compensation bill over its 2006 decision to close down the town’s historic pier due to the potentially dangerous decay of its structure.
Council officials said that they were forced to take drastic action following expert advice that five of the pier’s trusses had failed and amidst fears that it would be unsafe to allow large numbers of people onto the structure, which dated back to 1872. A magistrates’ court order had been obtained three months after the public was barred from the pier, confirming the Council’s closure decision.
Company A, the then tenant of a bingo hall and amusement arcade on the pier, was hit hard by the closure and subsequently went into liquidation. Its right to take legal action was subsequently assigned to company B, which sued the Council under Section 106 of the Building Act 1984 (the 1984 Act). Company B’s claim was upheld in 2013 by the Technology and Construction Court.
Challenging that decision before the Court of Appeal, the Council argued that company A had taken its lease after the end of the pier’s design life and in the knowledge that there were serious structural problems. It was alleged that the company had taken no or no adequate steps to repair the pier until 2007 and, prior to that, had exposed members of the public, as well as its own employees, to danger. On that basis, it was submitted that company A had been in breach of its duties under the Occupiers’ Liability Act 1957 (the OLA) and the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 (the HSWA).
However, in dismissing the Council’s appeal, the Court found that company A had not been ‘in default’ within the meaning of the 1984 Act. Under the terms of its lease, the company had ‘no responsibility’ to maintain the structure of the pier or to repair its defects. Arguments that company A had breached its duties under the OLA and the HSWA in admitting the public to its business premises did not constitute a defence to the claim under the 1984 Act.
The court’s decision entitled company B to compensation from the Council in respect of the period between 16 June 2006, when the public was banned from access to the pier, and 12 September that year, when the closure order was made by magistrates. The amount of compensation payable had yet to be assessed.