In October 2019 Beaumont Business Centres Limited v Florala Properties Limited came before the High Court and his honour Mr Peter Knox QC delivered his judgment some five months later, days before the first lockdown, signalling a significant shift in the approach of the courts to rights of light cases.
The Court considered Beaumont’s claim for an injunction – or damages in the alternative – against Florala in nuisance for the wrongful interference with its right of light. The claim arose as a result of Florala building an extension into a lightwell which it owned, and which adjoined Beaumont’s property, and increasing the height of one of the elevations overlooking the lightwell.
It is important to say the levels of light loss were at the lower end of the spectrum and Florala argued that Beaumont didn’t even enjoy any legal right to light over the development. This felt like a case that could have been settled and the judgment revealed that that the parties got very close to reaching one. However, the discussions broke down and the case went to court resulting in an injunction ordering Florala to pull down part of the development it had completed almost two years earlier. All of this was made even more noteworthy by Beaumont’s decision not to seek an interim injunction. It had been previously thought that the failure to seek an interim injunction would weigh against the affected party but Mr Peter Knox QC didn’t see it that way. His judgment covered all of the essential elements of any rights of light dispute and cast doubt on the accepted practice in each of them.
This was the first major rights of light decision to impose an injunction requiring demolition of part of a building since the ruling of the Supreme Court in Coventry v Lawrence. As a result practitioners were holding their breath and hoping that the High Court might shed some much needed light on an area of law that is shrouded in darkness. Many will recall that prior to Coventry v Lawrence 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 Coventry v Lawrence undertook a review of the case law and concluded that the past tendency towards injunctions had resulted from an overly rigid approach. Not everyone agreed and much debate has followed but the indication was that injunctions would be less likely in the future. Unfortunately the Supreme Court failed to provide clear guidance as to how the courts should approach the question and it was for that reason this decision was seen as a much needed opportunity for guidance to be provided.
Many were surprised that an injunction was granted and it seemed inevitable that an appeal would follow. Therefore, when permission to appeal was refused by the Court of Appeal earlier this year, those involved with rights of light were left disappointed to say the least. For practitioners and developers alike, the ongoing uncertainty is far from ideal. Some will recall the Law Commission’s report on Rights to Light at the end of 2014 which included, amongst other things, a recommendation that a statutory test be established to clarify when courts may order damages to be paid rather than halting development or ordering demolition. Such certainty would completely shift the face of rights to light law and provide a framework around which developers could work in order to mitigate the injunction risk. Unfortunately there is no sign of any legislation coming forward and so it is left with the courts to develop the law in this area. With the Court of Appeal showing no interest in the Beaumont case we are left waiting for another case in the hope that it will shed some much needed light.