There has been some discussion amongst lawyers recently over whether an easement for a washing line can be acquired by prescription. Case law on the point dates back to at least 1832, but the question of whether an easement to hang out washing can be acquired by prescription where the line stretches beyond the “washer’s” property continues to be a live issue today. 

In order to acquire any easement by prescription, the use must be continuous for a period of 20 years and must be “as of right”: it must be carried on openly and without permission or objection from the lawful owner of the land. This is commonly used to prove that a right of way has been established – but can it also relate to the right to use a washing line?  The question is relevant to properties where washing lines are hung across passageways, or between terraced houses.

In 1832 it was decided in the case of Drewell v Towler that there was an established easement to use the washing line. As long as the use is continued in the same manner, it is likely that this would hold true today. As the owner of the washing would be moving between their property and the washing line, there would be clear dominant and servient land and the use would not be “wandering at large”. This means that the use in itself could constitute an easement.

However, changing the type of washing line (for example, from a point to point line to a rotary one) or changing the washing use from private to commercial would not be permissible once the easement has been established.

With space for housing a current concern, this issue is as relevant today as it was in 1832.  It appears that the position is likely to be the same as it was back then, but it will be interesting to note how the point is decided should it be raised in a court case in the twenty-first century.