European Court supports UK 'reasonably practicable' safety laws

14 June 2007

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Today the European Court of Justice (ECJ) upheld one of the key elements of British health and safety law - the use of the key phrase 'so far as is reasonably practicable.'

Speaking at the Yorkshire Branch of the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), Bill Callaghan, Chair of the Health and Safety Commission (HSC), welcomed this decision, saying "I am pleased by this outcome. The Court has rejected the European Commission's claim that the use of 'so far as is reasonably practicable' does not implement the Framework Directive. Quite clearly we have been effective in protecting people, as currently we have the best occupational safety record in Europe.

"We continue to believe that the right way forward is a proportionate and risk-based approach protecting employees and others effectively, whilst allowing commonsense to be applied when deciding on what protective measures to adopt."

The EC brought the case against the UK in the ECJ, challenging the UK's implementation of European Directive 89/391/EEC, on the introduction of measures to encourage improvements in the safety and health of workers at work (The Framework Directive). The Commission's action was founded on the UK's use of the phrase 'so far as is reasonably practicable' (SFAIRP) in section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (HSWA). The EC believed that this amounts to defective implementation of the Directive, which does not contain such a qualification.

The UK robustly defended the case, arguing that the wording of s2 (1) of the HSWA, as interpreted by the UK courts, achieves the aims of the article. Furthermore, this is demonstrated by the UK's health and safety performance record, which is among the best in Europe. The 'so far as reasonably practicable' wording has been a longstanding feature of English law and predates even the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. It introduces flexibility into the law and contrasts with some other Member State legal systems where the law is written in absolute terms but courts can apply flexibility and proportionality in their judgements. There is a strong body of case law on which the current interpretation is now based.

Today the ECJ dismissed the European Commission's case and ordered it to pay the UK Government's costs.

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