Clarifying the extent of landlord liabilities

Many tenants assume that any issue that arises – or anything that happens to them in the property – during a tenancy will fall at the landlord’s door in liability terms. While there are certainly liabilities for landlords, from issues such as faulty wiring or decaying structures, this liability is not unlimited. As the recent case of Sternbaum v Dhesi illustrated, there is a point at which a landlord is simply not liable.

Sternbaum v Dhesi

In this case the tenant had slipped and fallen while walking up a staircase in a rented property. The staircase had no hand rail – and had not had a hand rail at the time that the tenancy agreement was signed. However, the flight of stairs was steep and there was some evidence that at some point in the life span of the stairs there had been a bannister there. The tenant argued that the lack of a handrail made the stairs dangerous and so the landlord wasn’t meeting the covenant to maintain and repair in the tenancy agreement. Although it was agreed that a handrail would have prevented the accident, this didn’t create a liability for the landlord.

No liability for a failure to make safe

Crucial to the case was that there was no obligation in the tenancy agreement to make the premises safe or to improve them. The only obligation was to ensure the property didn’t fall into disrepair. As the court pointed out, the duty to repair was not the same as the duty to make safe and in this case the addition of a handrail would fall into the latter category. Although a lack of handrail could be considered a hazard (and an improvement notice was issued), it did not constitute a lack of repair - ‘unsafe’ did not mean ‘in disrepair’ – and so the landlord was not liable.

The tenancy agreement is the key

Most tenancy agreements impose requirements to ensure that a building structure is kept in a good state of repair. The Defective Premises Act of 1972 also provides for additional duties on a landlord when it comes to someone else being affected by the state of a property. However, as the case of Sternbaum v Dhesi shows, there is no blanket recourse for a tenant who has come to harm in a rented property. Ultimately, it was the tenancy agreement that protected the landlord from being successfully pursued by the tenant because it did not contain a provision requiring that the building should be made safe only that it should not fall into disrepair.

A complex area of law

It’s worth noting that this case may have been different had there been a handrail in place at the time that the tenancy agreement was signed. If the handrail was then removed it could have created a situation of disrepair and a liability for the landlord. Ultimately, this is an incredibly complex area of law where it’s easy for landlords to encounter difficult situations, which is why professional advice on tenancies and tenancy disputes is a must.