A Change in the Light?
  • 17th Jul 2014
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An important recent decision in the Supreme Court regarding the case of Coventry and others v Lawrence and others, may now impact the way in which developers proceed with developments affected by neighbouring property rights and in particular rights to light.

Over recent years courts have been quick to impose injunctive relief preventing development where such development would infringe on a neighbour’s right to light. Courts have always had the ability to award monetary damages instead of an injunction but have increasingly only awarded these in exceptional circumstances.

From a developer’s perspective the impact of this was, at best, to strengthen the neighbour’s position when negotiating for monetary reward and at worst could prevent the development in its entirety.  This could be despite the fact they may already have incurred the expense of obtaining planning permission or in extreme circumstances built their development. There have even been circumstances where, in the event that a developer has already constructed buildings contravening rights to light, courts have ordered these to be demolished.

The case of Coventry and others v  Lawrence and others (2014) reviewed the law surrounding the imposition of injunctive relief generally and reached conclusions that may  be music to developer’s ears. Although this case related to noise, the principles are readily transferrable to the more common issue of developers infringing rights to a neighbour’s light.

The case itself concerned a claim from neighbours to a speedway track who complained that the noise generated from the track constituted a nuisance for which they were entitled an injunction to stop. In considering whether an injunction was the appropriate remedy, Lord Neuberger criticised the mechanistic approach courts have used in imposing an injunction unless there were exceptional circumstances. These exceptional circumstances had traditionally been interpreted to be:

  1. The injury to the claimant’s legal rights is small;
  2. The claimant can be adequately compensated in a small payment of money;
  3. It would be oppressive to the defendant to grant an injunction.

Whilst acknowledging that injunctive relief was a primary remedy where a right is infringed, he also affirmed the ability for a defendant to argue that damages could be a suitable alternative remedy and that the court had discretion to award damages even where the traditional exceptional circumstances test could not be met.

One of the deciding judges even went so far as to suggest that injunctive relief would not normally be appropriate where planning permission for a proposed development had already been granted

Implications

This case has the potential to weaken the position of an infringed owner where a developer is looking to implement a development with planning permission. It also makes the prospect of obtaining an injunction a  harder prospect where there is good reason to substitute such an  approach   with that of damages.

We would anticipate that this case could result in fewer injunctions being awarded as a result of this judgement, with damages more readily awarded in their place.

For developers this could be a welcome decision to speed the build process, but to existing landowners it may remove that extra line of defence against unwanted future developments.  Whatever your position, our property and dispute resolution teams can advise further regarding specific cases.