Is it your civic duty to clear snow?

BBC News Magazine | January 7, 2010
By Denise Winterman

Local authorities in the UK are responsible for gritting and salting public roads and pavements, but what about your own path and the pavement in front of your home? Is it your civic duty to keep them clear for others?
In parts of the world the public is expected to help keep the streets clear of snow. In Minneapolis, in the US, it's your legal duty.

"Keeping our sidewalks free of ice and snow is the neighbourly thing to do, and it's the law... please do your part," says the local authority's website.

The rules are strict. Snow must be removed from pavements outside homes within 24 hours of snowfall ending. However, they are given free "sidewalk sand" to do the job.

If the public works department gets a complaint or discovers that a pavement is not properly cleared, it gives the property owner a chance to do it. If the pavement has still not been cleared upon re-inspection, city crews will do the job and the home owner will be sent the bill.

The US city of Boston is equally tough. The mayor's website states people have a personal responsibility to remove snow from "the full paved width of the sidewalk or a minimum of 42 inches wide". Fines can reach as much as $250 (£154) for each day the snow is left.

Legal risk

There are also strict regulations in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Most German towns have a "street cleaning statute". Snow-shovelling requirements are spelled out in detail, even down to the minimum width of the cleared area and the time during which you must keep the snow cleared.

It's not the case in the UK. In fact, you are taking a theoretical legal risk if you clear the pavement in front of your home.

It's the local authority's responsibility to clear snow and ice from the public highway. By sweeping snow from one part of the pavement to another, if done in a manner that caused injury to someone, there is a chance legal action could be taken against you under the part of the law known as "tort of nuisance".

But, Paul Kitson, a partner with leading personal injury solicitors Russell Jones & Walker, explains that a claimant would have to show you had acted either maliciously or carelessly, and that such a case would often be tricky in practice.

"It would be quite difficult to prove and quite difficult to proceed with a claim."

On your own land, it is a different matter. You owe visitors a duty under the Occupiers Liability Act 1984 to take reasonable care to ensure that they are reasonably safe. So if you know someone is likely to walk up your garden path, like the milkman, and you know it's slippery, you must take reasonable steps to clear it and grit it if necessary.

But some people say it is your civic duty to help, even those high up. Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond, whose home is in Strichen, Aberdeenshire, has reportedly urged people to help neighbours.

"These are the worst weather conditions we've had for 30 years," he was quoted as saying in the Times.

"I would urge people to engage in self-help so that they have access to their driveways and pavements. They should do the same for their neighbours who might not be able to help themselves."

Of course there is shovel etiquette when it comes to clearing pavements and paths. Just shunting it in front of the neighbours' gate would probably be considered rude.

The gutter might seem a better bet. Or your own garden.