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Mandatory injunction issued in right to light case

House_in_london_under_renovation Print publication

22/08/2016


The Court of Appeal has confirmed the issue of a mandatory injunction requiring a staircase to be altered due to the interference it causes with an adjoining property’s right to light. Ottercroft Ltd v Scandia Care Ltd & Anor [1] reinforces that injunctions will be issued where the court feels any significant damage has occurred and rectification cannot be achieved by monetary means alone.  In particular, the case confirms that parties’ conduct will be taken into account.  Even though the infringement with the right was minor in this instance, the court found damages would be inadequate – largely due to the defendant’s high-handed and unreasonable conduct.

Background facts

Ottercroft Ltd (the Claimant) and Scandia Care (the Defendant) occupied adjoining properties in High Wycombe.  The Defendant started work to construct a storeroom and staircase as part of the development of a cafe with residential flats above, but without serving notice on the Claimant under the Party Wall Act 1996.  On the basis that there was interference with a right to light, the Claimant began legal proceedings.  Personal undertakings were then given by the Second Defendant (a director of the Defendant company) and by the Defendant, via which they both committed to discontinuing the works in question.  However a metal fire-escape for the residential flats was subsequently built, obstructing a window at the Claimant’s restaurant.

First Instance decision

In the Oxford County Court, the judge found the Claimant’s right to light was infringed by the staircase. In addition, the Defendant and Second Defendant (together the Defendants) had acted without planning permission or appropriate notice, and in breach of their undertakings. The court acknowledged that the infringement was only minor and the damage could have been measured in monetary terms so that, in usual circumstances, payment of damages to the Claimant would have been acceptable.  However, in this case, breach of the undertakings provided an overwhelming reason for an injunction to be granted.  The judge also felt the Second Defendant’s conduct had been poor and high-handed and the honesty of the Second Defendant as a witness was questioned – neighbours had purposefully not been informed of the development plans even though the Second Defendant had been aware the proposals could infringe a right to light.  Removal or alteration of the staircase was therefore required under the injunction and costs were awarded to the Claimant.

Appeal

Taking the matter to the Court of Appeal, the Defendants argued that a mandatory injunction should not have been awarded – damages were the appropriate remedy; the Second Defendant should not have been held personally liable; and it was wrong for the Defendants to be ordered to pay the Claimant’s pre-and post-action costs for both legal and surveying services.

Court of Appeal decision

Lord Justices Laws, Tomlinson and Lewison dismissed the Defendants’ appeal, finding:

  • It is well-established that an injunction should not be granted where damages would be an adequate remedy. A balancing exercise must be undertaken when determining whether to grant an injunction or award damages when dealing with an infringement.
  • The infringement with the Claimant’s right to light was relatively minor in this instance, such that damages would usually have been sufficient. However, the judge had been entitled to consider the Defendants’ conduct and his reasoning had been correct. The undertakings given were as binding as an interim order and should have been respected. There had been high-handed conduct and an attempt to evade the court’s jurisdiction. An injunction was therefore appropriate.
  • Expert evidence indicated that it was feasible for the staircase to be altered to overcome the interference with neighbouring properties’ light at a cost of approximately £6,000. The injunction would therefore not be oppressive to the Defendants.
  • The decision in Coventry (t/a RDC Promotions) v Lawrence [2] was followed. An injunction will be appropriate if a defendant has acted in an imperious way and tried to avoid censure. The courts’ granting of an injunction in such circumstances both ensures that justice is done for the claimant and serves as a warning to others.
  • The Second Defendant was a director and company secretary of the Defendant company, with his wife being the only other director. He effectively exercised control of the Defendant. The judge had thus been correct to find him personally liable – the Second Defendant had personally pushed ahead with the proposals.
  • The costs order granted was well within the first instance judge’s powers. Pre-action costs could be included, with conduct both before and during proceedings being taken into account.

Comment

The outcome should be of considerable interest for developers and landowners. It provides some clarity regarding granting of injunctions in rights to light cases.  The lower courts now appear to have affirmed the Supreme Court’s decision in Coventry v Lawrence, taking a more commercial approach to awarding injunctions.  In particular, it reinforces that the decision involves a balancing act, as part of which the court takes into account a number of variables.  Developer behaviour is one of these, particularly where deceptive actions and questionable conduct are involved.

The case emphasises the importance of interacting with neighbours and adjacent landowners before undertaking development, so they are adequately consulted regarding any relevant proposals. Trying to carry out works surreptitiously and make changes ‘under the radar’ will rarely be successful.  The courts will regard such behaviour unfavourably and this may lead to adverse consequences if enforcement action is taken later.  High-handed and deceitful behaviour could encourage the court towards granting an injunction and can also be taken into account in relation to the question of costs.

The court’s focus on conduct should perhaps be of little surprise – it is consistent with the evolution of rights to light insurance and the heightened significance of ‘agreed conduct’ provisions. An award of damages (as opposed to an injunction) effectively allows a developer to purchase a neighbour’s rights, so when rights to light are involved, judicial discretion will undoubtedly also take conduct into account.

Developers should adopt a careful strategy when communicating with neighbouring owners, ensuring that their conduct would be regarded as beyond reproach if the matter subsequently went to court. This case endorses the approach many professional developers already follow, whereby considerable time and money is expended interacting and developing good relations with neighbouring landowners and occupiers.

For further information or advice on the impact of this decision and other recent legislative developments in this area, please contact the Planning or Real Estate Litigation teams at Walker Morris LLP.

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[1] Unreported, 6 July 2016
[2] [2014] UKSC 13

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