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Light relief for developers?

In the first rights of light case to follow the Supreme Court’s decision in Coventry -v- Lawrence a county court has refused an injunction to prevent interference with rights of light.

The case of Scott -v- Aimiuwu concerned two neighbouring houses in Potters Bar. Mr and Mrs Aimiuwu built a substantial extension to the rear of their house in 2012/2013, which interfered with access to light to four windows to Mr and Mrs Scott’s house. The Aimiuwus had proceeded with the works notwithstanding the Scotts’ objections. The Scotts applied to court for an injunction requiring the extension to be cut back by around 92 square metres to prevent interference with light.

The court, applying the approach set out by the Supreme Court in Coventry v Lawrence, refused an injunction. On the face of it, this sounds like very positive news for developers. However, it is clear that the Judge was heavily influenced by the specific facts of the case and therefore it should not be regarded as creating any sort of general rule. In particular:

  1. The interference related to windows in so-called secondary accommodation (namely a garage, utility room and bathroom). As such it could be adequately compensated in damages. The Judge felt that matters may well have been different if primary accommodation such as bedrooms or living rooms had been interfered with;
  2. The Aimiuwus had mistakenly believed that they were entitled to proceed because they had planning permission. They had also received expert advice that the interference was not material; and
  3. There is no hard and fast rule that rooms must remain 50% lit to avoid an actionable interference with light. This is just a rule of thumb but could vary depending on the circumstances.

In light of the above, the Judge concluded that an injunction requiring demolition would be punitive and oppressive. However, the Aimiuwus were entitled to compensation. The Judge exercised his discretion here as well.  He awarded damages of £30,000 based upon the “book value” of the loss of light rather than awarding “buy-out” damages based upon a share of the developer’s profits. Again, whilst this may seem favourable for the developer it too should be treated with caution. The Judge was clearly concerned with arriving at a fair and compensatory figure and the book value approach may well have resulted in a larger pay-out than a buy-out approach because the increase in value of the house was not very substantial by comparison.
If one thing is clear it is that the outcome of rights of light cases remains uncertain following Coventry -v- Lawrence. The developer’s conduct is key and those who fail to engage openly and reasonably with their neighbours may not be as lucky as the Aimiuwus.

Cases: Scott v Aimiuwu [unreported]
Coventry and others v Lawrence and another (No. 2) [2014] UKSC 46