In a recent case, a property owner was unsuccessful in its attempt to end a claim for infringement of a right to light by summary judgment.
Right to light
A right to light is a legal right - an easement - which benefits buildings on a piece of land, allowing those buildings to receive light across neighbouring land, through apertures i.e. windows. If the owner of the neighbouring land does something that interferes with the access of light to the building, the building owner may have an action for infringement of its right.
Such an action usually takes the form of an interim injunction requiring the neighbouring landowner to stop building works, rework its plans to reduce the impact on the access to light or (if the building has already been built) demolish the obstruction. However, the court has the discretion to award damages instead of an injunction.
There is a school of thought that says showing a willingness to accept damages demonstrates that the infringement is capable of being compensated by money, such that the ability to claim an injunction falls away. Injunctions are, after all, a draconian remedy which can sterilise development. If a building has already been completed the cost of tearing it down can be oppressive.
The case of Beaumont Business Centres Ltd v Florala Properties Ltd concerned a claim by the tenant of building X against the owner of a neighbouring building Y. The owner of building Y (the defendant) sought to increase the height of its building. The tenant of X sought an injunction preventing the defendant from doing this, insisting that the additional structure be demolished and claiming damages for any loss caused.
The defendant applied for summary judgment (essentially, this asked the court to decide the claim without a trial) and submitted that there was no realistic prospect of a final injunction being granted on the basis that the injunction had not been brought to protect the right to light, but to extract money from the defendant.
The defendant's reason for saying this was because the tenant had entered into a deed with its current and former landlords concerning the rights to light at building X. The deed dealt with what would happen if the defendant ever sought to increase the height of building Y to reduce the light reaching building X. If it did, it was agreed that the current landlord would take no part in the claim but allow the former landlord and the tenant to negotiate a settlement with the defendant.
The court said the tenant was within its rights to bring the claim and have it determined at trial. It could not gauge, at this early stage in the proceedings, whether the defendant's threatened interference with the tenant's right to light was so trivial as to warrant the refusal of an injunction or an award of damages in line with the principles laid down by the Supreme Court in Coventry v Lawrence  UKSC 13.
The mere existence of the deed did not disentitle the tenant from seeking an injunction. The purpose of the deed was to make it clear who the proceeds of any release negotiated would belong to, if such agreement was reached with the defendant. The defendant was not party to that deed and the deed did not remove the tenant's right to bring a claim for a breach of its right to light, save to the extent the former landlord required it to do so by way of final settlement with the defendant. There was no evidence before the court that the former landlord would require it to do so.
The court did not accept the defendant's assertion that the terms of the deed proved that the case was brought for financial reasons rather than the enforcement of the right to light.
Cases like this turn on their own facts. The terms of the deed made between current and former landlords of the property and the claimant were crucial here. While in this case the wording of the resulting deed did not lend itself to the inference the rights were enjoyed with consent or that the tenant was only interested in securing a financial advantage as opposed to protecting its rights, in many instances that will not be so. The defendant did the right thing in critically analysing the contractual position.
Ultimately, property owners will be happy to see another case confirming the preservation of a right to light claim.
However, there will also be sympathy for the defendant trying to use all the tools at his disposal to enable its development to proceed, particularly given the ever increasing pressure to maximise the use of space and increase value.
Beaumont Business Centres Ltd v Florala Properties Ltd 11 July 2018 (unreported)