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After a few days respite from the worst of the winter weather, Sunday brought two new “Yellow – Be Aware” Met Office Severe Weather Warnings for the United Kingdom indicating that a further “cold snap” is on its way. According to the meteorological boffins, by Wednesday a cold front will be sweeping south east across the UK bringing “frequent and heavy” showers, which are expected to fall as snow in the north and west, and driven well inland by strong to gale force north westerly winds.

Lying snow is likely away from the coast, with about 2-5 cm predicted at lower localities whilst higher ground could see in excess of 10 cm! And while the cotton wool like stuff can delight children (and the childlike), it can also bring danger and despair to commuters and pedestrians, in equal measure.

One only needs to look on social media over the past few days and weeks to see weary members of the public reporting problems to their respective local authorities. Across the country, people are tweeting or messaging about of a lack of gritting, black ice, and roads like ice rinks that are putting drivers and pedestrians at risk. And this is only a snap shot highlighting the problems faced by the most able members of our society who are actually fit enough to get out and about. What about those who can never get out and about and rely on others getting to them, safely and on time?

In sharp contrast to the public’s response on social media, the response of our local authorities to these complaints is unfortunately altogether less visible. Many people seem to complain that their own particular road or street just simply doesn’t get salted or gritted at all, and nothing changes, leading to an acceptance that this is just the way things are.

So what are local authorities supposed to do? Well, the legal duty upon your local authority, wherever you are in Scotland, is to take “reasonable care” for members of the public in respect of hazards on the roads arising from snow and ice. Unfortunately this duty is not an absolute duty meaning a local authority must grit all roads and footpaths or even must grit a particular road or footpath. In several compensation claims that have been decided by our courts, it’s been accepted that resources (human and otherwise) will not always be adequate for all conditions.  Likewise, courts have accepted that it’s not possible in practice for all roads to be treated in the time available between weather warnings, like those we had yesterday, and the onset of the snow and ice itself. 

The guidance from the courts is that local authorities have to prioritise their salting and gritting treatment according to the informed judgment of their own winter maintenance team, who rely on information from the Met Office and other agencies. Any exercise of decision making in this ways means there will be times when some or all of the roads are icy despite the local authority having complied with the law. For many people this may seem odd – but that is the extent of your local authority’s legal duty, which might explain why some roads and footpaths never get salted. 

So what can we do as the cold weather closes in? We must be prepared and as safe as possible – wrap up warm, wear suitable footwear, and don’t travel unless you really have to. And don’t stop telling your Local Authority about the ice in your street or road, or local town centre. Telephone them, email them or send then a tweet! This might encourage the Local Authority to do something, and it also helps us lawyers when someone does get hurt.  

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