God is Dead… Legally speaking, that is

Sir Simon Jenkins has a must-read column today on how the UK’s Health and Safety Executive has decided to abolish the idea of an Act of God:

On New Year’s Day 2005, one of Dunham’s mighty 260-year-old beeches was hit by a sudden, 67mph gust of wind. It fell on to its neighbour, which in turn toppled and killed an eight-year-old boy. It was an accident, and nobody pretended otherwise. The Health and Safety Executive, in league with the police, arrested and cautioned the property manager for possible manslaughter, but the police dropped the case for lack of evidence after a year.The HSE did not do so. What used to be called an act of God has, since the invention of the HSE, been redefined as an act of man. There is no longer any such thing as an accident, or lawyers would starve. The chance of a tree killing a person in Britain is infinitesimal. There are barely half a dozen deaths a year attributed to trees, usually in cars driving into fallen ones. For a tree to topple on to a person, the odds are about 25m to one.

The HSE is none the less continuing its inquiry, to pin a case on the National Trust for criminal negligence under the Health and Safety at Work Act. The crime, presumably, is neglectful ownership of any tree that might fall over in a high wind. If the Trust can be found guilty, lawyers for the bereaved family may sue it in the civil courts for damages. The cost in litigation alone will be enormous.

The case has traumatised the National Trust and its park staff nationwide. They are responsible for 6m trees under which millions of human beings wander daily. Should they chop down every old tree, or only some, or close all treed areas to the public? Nobody knows. The case applies to all landowners in the public domain, which under the right to roam could rise to billions of trees.

When Trust staff are asked what most concerns them, they no longer cite lack of money or visitor numbers or interfering management. They cite the HSE. This body, with its terrorising inspectors, its box-ticking approach to safety, and its agents enforcing its edicts to the letter, is feared and loathed with equal passion.

This is actually just the tip of a Rhode Island-sized iceberg. The arguments raised about mankind causing Hurricane Katrina, ludicrous though they are, show that some people want to define all weather-related incidents as man-made, thanks to global warming of course. The insurance industry will be a big loser if this effort succeeds, and insurance will become a lot more expensive as a result. Which in turn will mean poor people will go uninsured while the rich continue to build mansions on Cape Hatteras. The result? A worse life for the least advantaged. Now that’s social justice…