May 1st, 2013 by James Goudie KC

What is the status of a non-statutory Code of Practice?  This question has been considered by the Court of Appeal, in the context of the duty to maintain a highway pursuant to Section 41 of the Highways Act 1980 (“HA 1980”), in Devon County Council v TR [2013] EWCA Civ 418, in which Judgment was given on 30 April 2013.  The highway authority successfully appealed against a decision that it had been liable for a road traffic accident and that the driver had not been negligent at all.

TR was the driver of a Land Rover on a country road. Whilst he was in the act of overtaking a slower-moving vehicle, his Land Rover left the road to the nearside and his passengers were very seriously injured in the ensuing crash into trees alongside the road. They sued him. He made a third-party claim against the Council.  He alleged that the defective state of the offside of the road was what had caused him to lose control.

The road in question was part of what is mostly a winding and hilly country road. After a winding and steep section of road, and a right hand bend, the road ahead opened up into a straight section which gave ample visibility to overtake. The road was a single carriageway in each direction. At some points it had no line markings at all, but on the section where the accident occurred there was a long dash centre white line and solid white lines down each edge. On both sides there were soft grass verges. On TR’s nearside there was a ditch with trees beyond it, approximately level with the road surface. On his offside, there was a noticeable and quite steep short bank down into a ditch, and a hedge beyond it.

There was damage to the offside (east) edge of the tarmac, both outside and (in places) over and inside the continuous white edge line. This is common enough where the outer edge of the tarmac meets a soft grass verge. It is caused by heavy vehicles running along or over the tarmac’s edge with their tyres. It is known to highways engineers and maintenance people as “overriding” damage.

The area of overriding damage was 51 metres long. At its widest the damaged area extended just under 6 inches inside the edge of the continuous white edge line and, in places, obscured or obliterated that line. The deepest part of the damaged area was something more than 3 inches deep. TR must have put his offside tyres into the damaged area, at a point before the place at which it intruded most into the carriageway, and at a point where the continuous white edge line was either missing or difficult to see.

Hughes LJ, as he then was, observed that, as is well known, the duty of the highway authority evolved from the common law duty of the local inhabitants to maintain a highway. That duty was an absolute one but was enforceable only by what today would be called a public law action. The inhabitants were not liable for any private loss caused by the state of the road, unless there was misfeasance, as distinct from nonfeasance or simple failure to maintain. That origin is the explanation for the manner in which the law has been expressed since the Highways Acts 1959 and 1961, and in which it now appears in HA 1980. The duty to maintain contained in Section 41 (which includes repair) is now broken by mere nonfeasance. It remains an absolute duty, and it may be invoked not only in relation to civil claims against the authority arising out of an accident but also by action to enforce the maintenance of the road. It is a duty to put and keep the highway in such a state that it does not entail danger to those who use it in the manner ordinarily to be expected. However, so far as civil claims arising out of accidents arising from non-maintenance are concerned, the liability of the authority is limited by Section 58 to the case where it has not taken such care as was in all the circumstances reasonably required to render the highway not dangerous to traffic. The onus of proving that all reasonable care was taken lies on the authority.

The issues which called for decision were therefore whether there was a breach of Section 41, either whether the road was in a condition which exposed to danger those using it in the ordinary way; if so, whether the accident was caused by that breach; if so, whether the Council made out the statutory defence under Section 58, ie of taking all reasonable care; and, if not, whether there was any contributory negligence on the part of TR.

The road was dangerous, at least in places.  However, in order to succeed in a claim made on the basis of a breach of Section 41 it is not enough to show that the highway was dangerous somewhere other than where the accident happened; it must be shown that it was dangerous where the accident occurred, and that the accident occurred as a result of the danger.

In this case the point of entry into the rut was dangerous.  A causative breach of Section 41 was made out.

The principal issue on the statutory defence under Section 58 was whether Devon inspected the road sufficiently often.  Devon’s settled practice for this road and a great many others of the same kind in the County was to inspect at six monthly intervals. The trial judge found that this was not enough to discharge the onus laid upon Devon by Section 58 to show that it had taken such care as was in all the circumstances reasonably required to secure that the part of the highway to which the action relates was not dangerous to traffic.  This is where the Code of Practice fitted in.

There was and is a non-statutory Code of Practice: “Well maintained highways”.  One of a great many areas of practice which is traversed by the Code is frequency of inspection.  In addition, Devon had its own manual for road inspection and the treatment of defects.  The judge concluded that Devon had failed to make out the statutory defence because it had not justified its departure from the recommended inspection interval referred to in the Code. She held that six monthly inspection was insufficient, both generally and specifically in relation to this particular road. Her finding was not simply that six monthly inspection was insufficient, but that only monthly inspection, as per the Code, would discharge the duty to take reasonable care.

The Court of Appeal said that, in adopting this approach, the Judge fell into error.  Hughes LJ, with whom Lloyd LJ and Sir Stanley Burnton agreed, said, from paragraph 20:

“Despite the recognition in the opening words that the code was non-mandatory, this approach amounted to treating it as a mandatory standard which had to be adhered to unless there was a positive reason to depart from it. Whilst the code is clearly evidence of general good practice, its status must not be overstated. It has no statutory basis …”

“The code does not set out mandatory rules. It is evidence of good practice. Authorities must exercise their own judgment.”

“When it comes to the specific issue of inspection intervals, other considerations will clearly include traffic use, experience, the frequency of adverse incidents and the like.”

“It cannot amount to a rule that it will of itself be a want of reasonable care to adopt a different inspection interval unless some particular process of reasoning is passed through, and set out somewhere in writing; if it did, that also would be to make the code a mandatory instrument.”

“At the very least, the evidence of the practice of other authorities pointed towards a respectably held view, amongst professionals charged with highways maintenance, that six monthly inspections of local distributor roads were a reasonable response to the duty to maintain. On the well understood Bolam principle that evidence went towards showing that Devon had exercised reasonable care in its general policy for such roads.”

“There appears to have been no evidence of the exact age of Devon’s practice, but if, as appears, it had been applied to local distributor roads generally for a significant period without problems in the form of avoidable accidents or otherwise, that was in itself some evidence that reasonable care was taken.”

“For these reasons, the judge’s finding that Devon’s adoption of an inspection frequency of six months for local distributor roads generally was a want of reasonable care cannot stand. It was founded on an erroneous approach to the code.

“However, the judge also held that this particular road called for greater frequency of inspection. Although that finding was in part predicated upon her flawed findings about the policy for local distributor roads generally, the evidence before her was by no means confined to the general. It extended to the detailed inspection reports for this road, over a period of the three and a half years before this accident. … Despite the flawed approach to the policy of Devon in relation to local distributor roads generally, it is clear that there was sufficient evidence to justify the judge’s conclusion that this particular road needed inspection at shorter intervals than six monthly, and I see no warrant for interfering with it. I would accordingly uphold her finding that the statutory defence had not been made out, whilst rejecting her wider basis that Devon’s policy in relation to local distributor roads generally betrayed a lack of reasonable care because it amounted to a departure, without sufficient reason explained, from the non-statutory recommendations contained in ‘Well maintained highways’.”

Finally, the Court of Appeal concluded that TR was 50% contributorily negligent.

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