The Court of Appeal once again voices its disapproval of disputes between neighbours, this time concerning the need to read utility meters.
This highly publicised case involved two homes in a leafy Mancunian suburb, No 98 owned by the Dickinsons and No 96 owned by Mrs Cassillas. The two houses had been built at the same time. The utility meters for No 96 had been built into the flank wall of No 96, which sat on the boundary of the two properties. This meant that they could only be accessed by entering upon driveway of No 98.
When No 96 was still in the process of being constructed, it was sold with several express rights, including the right to 'enter with workmen tools and materials on adjoining land included in the... estate for the purpose of effecting such maintenance repair and decoration of the property transferred as may with more convenience be dealt with by access from the... adjoining land.'
The Dickinsons subsequently installed locked gates on the driveway in front of No 96's utility meters and surrounded them with what they described as 'decorative' metal spikes. Despite Mrs Cassillas' requests, they refused her access to read the meters and denied that she was entitled to enter upon their land for that purpose. This was just one of the disagreements between the parties upon which the court had to rule.
In relation to the dispute over the meters, the judge at first instance found that Mrs Cassillas' access rights did include the right to read the meters and granted an injunction to prevent the Dickinsons from interfering with the right. Instead of accepting defeat, the Dickinsons appealed.
The Dickinsons argued that the express wording of the right was clear and unambiguous. As it did not mention the word 'inspect', and none of the other words could be interpreted as permitting inspection, this clearly was not within permitted.
However, the Court of Appeal quoted from the Oxford English Dictionary which provides that 'maintenance' extends to checking or repairing an item regularly. Therefore 'maintenance' could be interpreted as including a right to inspect.
The Dickinsons also asserted that the meters had subsequently been placed in the flank wall by mistake and at the time of the transfer, when they had not yet been installed, it could not have been intended that Mrs Cassillas would have had a right of access over No 98 for the purpose of inspecting them.
Aside from concerns over the evidential burden of the Dickinsons' assertion, the Court of Appeal found that the original parties could not have intended a situation where Mrs Cassillas would be unable to read her own meters. The Court restated the legal position that the law will imply a term into a contract where such a term would have been regarded as reasonably necessary or obvious to the parties.
Therefore, the court said that even if it was wrong on the literal construction of the express right and its interpretation of 'maintenance', a right to inspect would be implied.
The court also held that the construction of the gates, together with the Dickinsons' unreasonable refusal to grant access to read the meters, did amount to a substantial interference with Mrs Cassillas' rights. Accordingly the court dismissed the Dickinsons' appeal.
While this case does not contain any new principles of law, it is a good reminder of the methodical approach that the courts will take when considering whether a proprietary right exists and whether it has been substantially interfered with.
More importantly, as the Dickinsons are now facing a legal bill of over £200,000 in relation to Mrs Cassillas' costs alone, it does serve as a salutary reminder of the risks attached of declaring war upon your neighbours. As David Richards LJ observed in the Court of Appeal: 'Where most neighbours would have found a sensible solution to the problems that arose between them, Mr and Mrs Dickinson took their stand on what they considered to be their strict legal rights. To their great cost, they were wrong about those rights.'