Shedding light on the right to light
A recent case has re-visited the law in so-called “right to light” cases in a way which may favour developers in the future.
First a little bit of history. Prior to the 2014 Supreme Court case of Coventry v Lawrence, the position was that an injunction would normally be awarded for a breach of a neighbouring owner’s right to light in all but the most exceptional cases.
However, in Coventry v Lawrence, the Supreme Court reviewed the law and decided that routinely granting injunctions was too rigid an approach. As a result of that case, it seemed likely that injunctions would be less common in future. However, the Supreme Court did not give any clear guidance as to how the Courts should approach the question in the future.
The position is now a little clearer as a result of the decision in the 2015 case of Scott v Aimiuwu. It nevertheless needs to be stressed that this is only a decision of the County Court and so should be treated with caution.
The dispute was between the owners of two large houses in Potters Bar and the background was complicated. There had been discussions between the parties over the years about possible extensions of their respective properties and there was a history of unsuccessful applications for planning permission.
In terms of the material facts:
- The properties were residential, which made it more likely that an injunction might be granted;
- However, the affected rooms were a garage, utility room and bathroom which are considered as less important;
- The amount of light lost in each room was significant, but not extreme;
- The extension had been completed before the case came to Court;
Importantly, the Judge found that the extension of the house of Mr and Mrs Aimiuwu had infringed Mr & Mrs Scotts’ right to light. If the Judge had granted an injunction, the result would have been that Mr and Mrs Aimiuwu would have been ordered to take down part of their extension.
However, having found that there was an interference with the Scotts’ right to light, the Judge awarded damages rather than an injunction. This was surprising bearing in mind the position prior to Coventry v Lawrence.
The Judge assessed Mr & Mrs Scotts’ damages at £30,000. Previous Court decisions have reflected a “share of the profits” approach when awarding damages. However, the Judge considered that such an approach might lead to a much larger award of £65,000 which he considered was too high. However, the diminution in the value of Mr & Mrs Scotts’ house in the view of the Judge resulted in a figure which was too low. This resulted in him deciding to award damages based upon a “middle” figure.
Although no injunction was granted in Scott v Aimiuwu, the facts were complicated and it would be going too far to suggest that injunctions are a thing of the past in right to light cases. Injunctions remain a real threat but the decision may be considered favourable by developers. The next important decision is now awaited.
Finally, it is worthwhile pointing out that the Law Commission in December 2014 proposed a change to the law so that landowners must provide a statutory notice to their neighbours within a specified period if they intend to seek an injunction to protect their right to light. It remains to be seen if this proposal will be taken forward by the Government.
If you are a developer or a neighbour who is concerned about rights to light please contact us today.