As seems a semi-regular occurrence whenever there is snow, we have a routine debate about the legality of clearing snow from the paths outside our own homes.
I have indeed been told almost since I was an adult and clearing the paths in front of shops where I worked that I was putting myself and my employer at risk of prosecution. There were a few occasions when I worked in retail when it snowed, and I always cleared the path outside the shop. This was good business sense, as customers trudging through the slush and snow will gain respite when outside my shop.
It’s damn good advertising.
Anyhow, a fair number of news reports over the past few days have reiterated the claims about legal liabilities, and it does seem to be used as an “excuse” by lots of people for not clearing the snow outside their homes. There have been calls for the law to be changed, and even for the exact reverse to apply, in that people would be required to clear the pavements or face prosecution.
Initially, I was happy for the law to be changed to permit path clearing, if less comfortable with the idea of forcing people to clear the paths. I thought it would do our shattered political establishment a lot of good if they passed a quick law to permit people to clear pavements without risk of prosecution.
However, does the law actually say you can’t clear a public path?
I am not a lawyer, but the best I can come up with is a tort of nuisance – where you are shown to have acted in a deliberate manner to cause a public nuisance. The chances of a person being considered a public nuisance if they clear a public path is frankly so slight as to be effectively non-existent.
Obviously, if you do something deliberately designed to cause injury, then you are going to be at justified risk of prosecution – but does simply clearing the snow away with a broom or shovel qualify as a deliberate attempt to cause injury or nuisance?
Is there now a legal minimum standard for path clearing that you are deemed to have accepted if you put shovel to snow? I can’t find any such regulation, so I suspect that in law, you are not required to complete clearing to a minimum level if you start.
I suspect that if anyone were foolish enough to sue – they would be ridiculed in the local media and probably ostracised by society. The chap last year who sued a florist after slipping on a rose petal was reportedly so denigrated by people, although in his defence, it did seem that the shop had been repeatedly warned about stray waste and failed to clear up the debris.
So, where a person/venue is repeatedly warned about a hazard, then the law seems clear – but if you go outside once a year with a shovel or broom to clear a path, then again the law seems clear. You cannot be held liable other than if you are deliberately malicious or negligent.
Ironically, while the law on clearing public paths is a bit vague, it is absolutely clear about your responsibilities about clearing the paths within your own property. The Occupiers Liability Act 1984 puts the onus on the property owner to ensure their own garden path is safe to walk on.
So, while out clearing the path from front door to street – why not go a few yards either side and clear that as well?
Despite what rent-a-quote lawyers have claimed, it’s perfectly safe to do so.