Lichfield Chancellor rules on railings safety

09 October 2015

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THE Consistory Court of the diocese of Lichfield issued a faculty authorising the placing of a bar to run along the tops of the iron railings outside Holy Trinity, Northwood, despite objections by the diocesan advisory committee that it would “not be appropriate visually”.

Holy Trinity is a Victorian Grade II listed church in the middle of terraced housing, with a small area of grassed open space on three sides and a park near by. The church is on a plinth, with grassed open space sloping away from it. The plinth is edged by the iron railings, which are crossed by a bar with finials in the shape of the fleur-de-lys.

On 28 August 2014, a child climbed the railings in an attempt to retrieve a frisbee that had blown into the enclosed area behind the railings. He slipped and impaled his head on the point of a finial, causing injury to his jaw.

The Rector and two members of the district church council (“the petitioners”), with the support of that council and the PCC, petitioned for a faculty in order to place a bar to run along the tops of the finials for the length of the railings. The petitioners stated that that course had been “strongly advised” by the church insurers.

The petitioners were also concerned about the potential danger to children in similar circumstances to the accident that had occurred.

The diocesan advisory committee did not recommend approval of the proposed works, and felt that a bar across the tops of the railings would not be appropriate visually, and would make the gates easier to climb. The DAC suggested other measures, such as leaving the gates unlocked, or sawing off the finials and leaving smooth stubs.

The petitioners responded that to leave the gates unlocked would make the church building less secure, and would leave it exposed to the risk of vandalism. Grinding down the finials would have limited benefit, the petitioners said. The accident resulted not from the sharpness of the current finials, but from the force of a fall on to a protruding metal object.

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The Diocesan Chancellor, His Honour Judge Eyre QC, said that leaving the gates unlocked would create a risk of vandalism to the church building or to its surroundings. In addition, the unlocking of the gates would have only a modest impact on the risk of injury.

The accident in August 2014 occurred when a child was trying to retrieve a frisbee from behind the railings. It was possible he would not have attempted to climb the railings if the gates had been unlocked, but that was not necessarily the case. Unlocking the gates would not remove the risk of children being tempted to climb the railings in play, or in a spirit of adventure.

The Chancellor said that he was conscious of the expertise of the members of the DAC in respect of matters of aesthetics, but he could understand the petitioners’ preference for the appearance of their proposal as against the appearance that would result if the DAC’s final proposed course were to be adopted.

The petitioners’ proposal would result in railings each topped with a fleur-de-lys mounted on a bar, with a further bar running across the top of the finials. It could be said that that would be more attractive than straight railings simply topped by a bar.

It was clear, the Chancellor said, that the adoption of any approach involving alteration to the railings was likely to result in a less pleasing appearance than that of the current railings. That was regrettable, but it was legitimate to give the concern about the safety of children priority over the effect on the appearance of the railings. That was particularly so, given that the railings did not contribute to the special significance of the church, and were not mentioned in the listing description.

In those circumstances, the petitioners had established that there were good grounds for taking action in respect of the railings, and had also shown that there were sound and legitimate reasons for adopting their proposed solution in preference to the possible courses of action put forward by the DAC.

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