I got the shovel out again the other day. It’s been behind the front door for the past four weeks. It had snowed overnight.
There’s a surprise – after all, after the last few weeks it feels as though snow is now a permanent fixture. I cleared our otherwise dangerous steps, and then shovelled some snow off the public footpath outside our house and that of our neighbours.
There was nothing out of the ordinary in my morning exertions. Everyone in our turning has mucked in. As have millions of others who have been working very hard to keep their streets, their schools and their communities going since this extraordinary winter started to bite. We really have seen people acting as good neighbours, following the example of the Good Samaritan, and not walking past on the other side.
We read a great deal about those in our society who are selfish, who commit the most horrible crimes, or who by being simply selfish drive their good neighbours to distraction. But the overwhelming majority are not like that, and there’s something noble about the way in which everyone joins in when faced with adversity. Indeed, some of the stories of people coming to the rescue of stranded drivers and giving them food and shelter – in some cases overnight – have been truly heart-warming. Did someone say Britain was broken? I think not.
The one thing I didn’t think about as I started shifting the snow on the public footpath was whether I was going to be sued by someone who’d walked on my cleared bit, slipped, and blamed me for their injuries. If you read some of the papers you could be forgiven for believing that health and safety experts were instructing people not to clear public paths, for fear of getting sued.
There may have been a little creative reporting here, but it’s also true that when asked by one of the newspapers, the body representing health and safety workers was hardly unequivocal about the risk. If a company gritted beyond their property, but failed to do it well enough and someone was injured in a fall, they “could incur some liability”. The group in question, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, was irritated that its full guidance, which said that in the event it would probably be best to grit areas to avoid accidents, was not reported. Such are the perils of dealing with the newspapers.
I hope this flurry of activity didn’t put anybody off clearing the snow outside their houses and on the pavements. The reality is that should someone seek to take action against a householder in these circumstances, the courts would take a sensible view. It’s doubtful that they would agree that one person might sue another for negligence, and I rather suspect that in fact the court would look kindly on a householder who was doing the right thing by clearing the snow from the pavement. It certainly won’t be stopping me getting the shovel out again.