Much has been written about the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Coventry v Lawrence and the impact this will have on the award of injunctions in rights to light cases. There have been a handful of decisions in different areas which have shed some light on the courts’ approach to injunctions post-Coventry v Lawrence but until recently nothing on rights to light. On 18 February 2015 Mr Recorder Edward Cole handed down his Judgment in Scott v Aimiuwu  which, although only in the County Court, is the decision the development industry has been waiting for.
The case involved a dispute between the owners of two substantial residential properties in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire. As is often the case in neighbour disputes the facts were complex and neither party emerged from the case unscathed. There had been discussions between the Scotts and the Aimiuwus over a period of years about the possible extension of their properties. The lengthy Judgment records a history of unsuccessful planning applications and appeals none of which are directly relevant to the injunction question. The important paragraphs of the Judgment are relatively brief and record the Judge’s approach to the all important question of whether to award an injunction or damages following his finding that the extension of Mr & Mrs Aimiuwus’ house had infringed Mr & Mrs Scotts’ right to light.
The position prior to Coventry v Lawrence was that an injunction would be awarded for a breach of a neighbouring owner’s right to light in all but the most exceptional cases. The Supreme Court Justices in that case undertook a review of the case law and concluded that the past tendency towards injunctions had resulted from an overly rigid approach. The indication was that injunctions would be less likely in the future but the Supreme Court failed to provide clear guidance as to how the courts should approach the question. It is for this reason that the first decision in a rights to light case was so eagerly awaited.
As is always the case, the question of the appropriate remedy will be determined by the particular facts. Scott v Aimiuwu is not alone in having a very specific set of facts which will arguably make it distinguishable from other cases. The important points are:
- The properties were residential which will generally tend towards an injunction being granted;
- The affected rooms were a garage, utility room and bathroom which will be considered as less important space;
- The levels of light lost in each room were significant but not extreme;
- The extension had been completed some time before the case came to Court;
- The conduct of the parties was not without question on both sides.
Ultimately the Judge must carry out a balancing exercise taking into account all of the factors to reach a decision. In this case his main focus was on the fact that the award of an injunction would leave Mr & Mrs Aimiuwu having to pull down part of their extension for what he saw as a relatively minor breach of Mr & Mrs Scotts’ rights.
Having found that there was an actual interference with Mr & Mrs Scotts’ right to light, the Judge awarded damages rather than an injunction. This comes as something of a surprise considering the pre-Coventry v Lawrence cases. However, when you look more closely at the facts, it is easier to understand how the Judge reached this decision. He went on to assess Mr & Mrs Scotts’ damages at £30,000 and in so doing made some interesting comments about the approach to damages (see here for a discussion as to the approach to damages: http://www.charlesrussellspeechlys.com/updates/publications/real-estate-construction-new/goldman-sachs-new-hq-survives-rights-to-light-scare/). The Judge considered that a share of profits approach might lead to an award of £65,000 which he felt was too high whereas the reduction in the value of Mr & Mrs Scotts’ house resulted in a figure which was too low. He opted for something in the middle ground which was the result of an application of the negotiating damages principle drawn from the Wrotham Park case.
Although the headline is attention grabbing, and no injunction was granted in this case, when you look at the detail it is simply not possible to support a proposition that injunctions are a thing of the past. They remain a very real threat but the decision does provide some insight into how similar cases might be dealt with in the post-Coventry v Lawrence world.