Is the communal area of a block of flats a public or private place?

A number of offences can only be committed in public places. These include possession of offensive weapons or bladed articles. The statutory definition of “public place” contained within the Prevention of Crime Act 1953 at section 1(4) states it ‘includes any highway and any other premises of place to which at the material time the public have or are permitted to have access, whether on payment or otherwise’.

In the case of Knox v Anderton [1982] 11 WLUK 98 the court held that the upper landing of a block of flats to which members of the public have access without hindrance can be a public place. Whereas the case of Williams v DPP [1992] 2 WLUK 69 in which it was held that The landing areas of a residential block to which access is controlled does not constitute a “public place”.

Considering these two cases in isolation one would be forgiven for thinking the issue of whether the communal area of a block of flats is public or private hinges on the question of whether the public can gain access without hinderance. For example the absence of some physical barrier such as a buzzer system or a locked door. This is not, however, the determining feature of whether an area is a public or private place.

A more detailed consideration of the facts of Knox v Anderton show that the block of flats in question was fairly unique in that it was a series of blocks of flats contained within an estate with numerous connecting stairways and walkways between them. Of more importance, at one end of the estate was a main railway line and at the other there was a shopping precinct and a community centre. There was evidence that people, other than residents of the flats or their guests, would use the walkways as a thoroughfare from the station to the shopping precinct and that the owner of the flats had acquiesced in its public use.  The fact that members of the public did use landings as a shortcut through the estate meant that it was a place that the public had and were permitted access to.

The case of Harriot v DPP [2005] EWHC 965 (Admin) gives further clarification. This case involved a resident of a hostel who took a knife out of the hostel and into the ‘forecourt’ of the hostel between the hostel and the road. The High Court held that the District Judge hearing the case had been wrong to convict the defendant on the basis that the area between the public road and the hostel was a public place because, amongst other reasons, members of the public could access the area unimpeded as there was no gate separating the area from the road.

Lord Justice Sedley held that unimpeded access was not enough to turn a private place into a public place. Places are either, on the face of it, public or private. Whether an ostensibly private place became a public place hinged on whether the general public did in fact have access to the place as in Knox v Anderton.

It is therefore unlikely that communal areas of blocks of flats will be considered public places unless the prosecution produce evidence that the general public have access to them in their capacity as members of the public.

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