The recent extreme storms have caused damage to buildings all over the country, and particularly in the south and south-west.
It is therefore perhaps timely and appropriate to discuss what provision the law makes for buildings which may possibly pose a danger to the public, even if it’s just a slate loose.
Slate Loose – Background
In 1963 the catastrophic collapse of a number of buildings in Bolton St. and Fenian St. in Dublin caused several deaths and injuries. As a response the Local Government (Sanitary Services) Act 1964 was passed, and it still remains in force today. Under that Act, a local authority has power to deem a building to be a dangerous structure. This process is often described, somewhat inaccurately, as ‘condemning’ the building.
This could typically happen if the building was shedding slates, windows or masonry, or if it was in imminent danger of partial or total structural collapse that threatened the safety of any person. This includes not only the passing public but also the owner or any occupier.
Do Buildings Suffer from Old Age?
Many 17th, 18th and 19th century buildings in cities and towns were constructed with a small parapet on the front wall that extended up past the eaves. Unless regular maintenance is carried out on the gutters, moss will form and leaves and other debris will accumulate and these will soon tend to trap and hold rainwater, hail, ice and snow. This water will penetrate the roof, and cause rot in the rafters. Over time, the water will then enter the top floors, and rot through the floorboards and joists, which may go unnoticed if the top floors of a building are disused. Eventually the water and the rot will cause failure of all the floors of a building and the entire front façade will be left unsupported, with all the structural stability of a playing card standing on edge. Collapse will soon follow unless complex remedial works are undertaken. The potential for injury is obvious.
A second frequent cause of failure comes from traditional brick and lime mortar construction. Weathering and birds both attack the mortar, frequently in brick chimneys, eventually destabilising the chimney and making it highly likely to collapse and fall in a very dangerous manner, because of its substantial weight. Lime mortar must receive careful maintenance every few years to prevent this, and chimneys should be inspected carefully and regularly for signs of deterioration.
Are Buildings a Danger unto themselves?
Under the Local Government (Sanitary Services) Act 1964, local authorities can deal with dangerous buildings and places by compelling the owner to do works. In emergencies they can enter the property themselves and carry out emergency works. Unfortunately, this legal mechanism is something of a blunt instrument, and it unfortunately has very frequently resulted in many potentially saveable high-quality buildings being either demolished or having their roofs knocked in.
From an owner’s perspective, the first notice of a problem with a building may come in the form of a warning letter or formal notice from the local authority.
Should you receive such a notice, it must be taken very seriously and you will need the advice of a solicitor who will look for the advice of a structural engineer.
A site for Sore Eyes!
The law on buildings was considerably modernised by the Derelict Sites Act, 1990. This Act defines a derelict site, and obliges local authorities to maintain a public register of derelict sites.
The legal definition of derelict sites includes land on which there are buildings in derelict, neglected, ruinous, neglected or dangerous condition.
Under this Act, notice must be given to owners and-or occupiers that the local authority considers the land to be a derelict site. They then must serve a further notice directing the owner or occupier to carry out works.
This Act is not a suitable mechanism for resolving buildings that are at the point of imminent collapse.
Besides compelling the completion of remedial works, under penalty of a criminal sanction, local authorities can impose severe financial levies and even compulsorily acquire derelict sites in their areas.
Most local authorities maintain an active programme of enforcing this Act, and there is no doubt but that when applied proactively it deals very usefully with eyesore buildings and disused properties.
If you have a concern about a property that you feel may come under the Derelict Sites Act, you can make a complaint to your Local Authority or have a solicitor make it on your behalf.
If you receive any sort of letter or formal notice under the Act as an owner or occupier, you should also take legal advice on it to ensure that you are not inappropriately penalised, criminally, financially or otherwise.
Non-compliance with a notice under this Act can result in a prosecution on indictment, which is quite a serious criminal sanction with far-reaching consequences. People have been very disagreeably surprised to find, for example, that they are refused visas to enter many foreign countries by virtue of having a conviction for an indictable offence, even if it only relates to “ a few loose slates”!
Wrap Up and Fix It .
As an owner or occupier of a property, you may at some time receive a statutory document from your local authority. Clearly, your first duty should of course be to ensure that your property poses no risk of harm to any other person or property. Once public safety is assured, you should consider whether the assistance of a solicitor is needed to safeguard your interests and minimise your exposure to costs, loss of ownership and the risks of a criminal conviction.
This article is merely a quick summary of the legislation mentioned – for a more in-depth appraisal of any individual case you may consult Lynch Solicitors.
John Considine LLB Trainee Solicitor