A key decision in the European Court of Justice (“ECJ”), dated June 14, 2007, saw the U.K. win a significant law suit against the European Commission over its interpretation of health and safety legislation.
According to Eversheds, the judgment in the Commission v. United Kingdom (“U.K.”) case will be a huge relief to those who feared a ruling in favour of the Commission, which would have led to a major overhaul of U.K. health and safety laws.
The case saw the U.K. challenged by the European Commission over its interpretation of the extent of an employer's duty to provide a safe place of work for its employees.
The Commission argued that under European law the duty was absolute and the U.K. had in effect redrawn the duty in more qualified terms in that employers are obliged to ensure a safe place to work "so far as is reasonably practicable". This, said the Commission, introduced an economic test allowing the level of risk to be measured against the cost and extent of provisions to manage the risk which in turn meant that the U.K. had misinterpreted European law and had therefore failed in its obligation to properly implement European law in national legislation.
In January, the Opinion issued by the Advocate General recommended that the Court should find in favour of the U.K., but at the same time raised some doubt whether the U.K.'s system of “reasonable practicability” was lawful. So there was concern that the Court might find against the U.K. when it delivered its full judgment.
By finding in favour of the U.K., and the basis of the finding in particular - that the Commission had failed to satisfy the Court on the evidence that the interpretation it argued for was correct, and further that it had failed too in establishing a failure to implement by the U.K. - it appears that the U.K. test of “reasonable practicability” is safe for now. Whether this could result in changes to the way health and safety legislation is interpreted in Europe under the Framework Directive is doubtful as most European legal systems are codified rather than the common law system we have in the U.K.
This is the best possible result for the U.K., which has fought to defend “reasonable practicability” for several years on the basis that we have criminal sanctions in the U.K. for health and safety breaches and an effective regime as a result given that the U.K. has one of the lowest levels of workplace accidents in Europe. This is on any view a heavy defeat for the Commission, as the Court stated that it had failed to prove its case in any way.
If the Court had found against the U.K., it would have meant a complete overhaul of existing health and safety legislation. Finding in favour of the U.K. poses an interesting challenge for the Commission whether to seek to strengthen or modify the EU Framework Directive, but frankly we expect little fall-out on that front.
Employers should welcome this decision as the prospect of a major overhaul of such a key area of regulation would not have been welcome. Few employers doubt that compliance with health and safety legislation is tough and most would bridle at any suggestion that employers are “let off" in the U.K. when it comes to health and safety in the workplace.