Is there a right to light at the end of the tunnel?

Posted by Rachel Gimson on
We are approaching the first anniversary of the case of Scott v Aimiuwu [2015] in which a classic dispute arose between neighbours as to the effect of one party's proposed extension on the amount of natural light entering the other party's property. 

However, this case was more than just a standard neighbour dispute as it was the first opportunity for the court to interpret and apply the guidance from Coventry v Lawrence [2014] concerning the grant of injunctions.  The case was started before the Supreme Court decision in Coventry v Lawrence, but heard afterwards, and therefore is a clear example of how cases like this will be dealt with going forward.

The decision

It is well known that the Supreme Court criticised how readily injunctions were granted in the past, given they are the most draconian remedy available in interfering with someone's property rights.  Therefore, many are not surprised by the decision to award damages to Mr and Mrs Scott in lieu of an injunction.

However, it would be premature to assume that all such cases will lead to the same decision.  Each case must be considered on its individual facts and in Scott v Aimiuwu, it appears the court focussed on two main areas:

1. The nature of the affected rooms and therefore the actual impact on day to day activities of the injured party;


2. The impact of an injunction on the offending party.

In this case the argument raised by Mr and Mrs Aimiuwu was that the rooms were of a "secondary" nature and therefore an injunction was too harsh a remedy.  In reply Mr and Mrs Scott provided evidence of their use of the rooms and the genuine impact on their working life.  Arguments were also raised concerning the potential for altering the rooms in the future to make them "primary" accommodation and the court needed to consider the limitations on the flexibility of their (or any future purchasers') choices within their home.

The fact that the court was not satisfied that the restricted light was a real limitation to the current owners in the use of their home played a role in the decision. The court did not want to put the issue of potential future reconfiguration above the real and immediate burden to the Defendants of a costly cut back to an extension which had already been built.

In addition, the extension was to a family home in Potters Bar where the court was satisfied the primary desire was to improve the property for the family itself.  Of course this would increase the property's value but the court found they were not pursuing financial gain, unlike a commercial developer or investor.

Recorder Cole found "the Court must look at the position as at the date of trial and the status quo now is that the extension has been completed (or very substantially completed)…it is obvious that the cutting back of the Defendants' rear extension that a mandatory injunction would require would have a significant impact on the Defendant's building and would be likely to cost a good deal of money.  I accept the evidence of the Defendants that no20 is a family home for them and their children who still remain at home.  The work of cutting back would be very disruptive and inconvenient".

What now?

It would be a step too far to assume that all those planning on building or extending in the knowledge of an infringement of a neighbour's right to light will be treated in such a way.  Whilst the decision in Coventry v Lawrence has resulted in the courts being less ready to grant injunctions, they are still an important weapon in a property owner's armoury. The threat of a claim should not be discounted merely as an attempt to elicit a higher settlement. 

All those dealing in property would like certainty on the application of the rules. However, that did not exist prior to Coventry v Lawrence, and Scott v Aimiuwu simply highlights the ongoing range of judicial discretion. The decision is not binding and has not been applied.  Time will tell (especially if the Law Commission's review of the law concerning right to light is reignited) whether this case is indicative of a general approach to property injunctions.

Rachel Gimson acted for the successful claimants in Scott v Aimiuwu.

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Rachel is an experienced litigation Solicitor who advises on all aspects of Property Litigation disputes.

Rachel Gimson
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