Enforcing property rights: can you still get an injunction?

If you own or occupy a property, and someone else’s actions (or inactions) are causing you problems, then an injunction is your ultimate legal weapon. It is a court order which forces someone to do something they are legally obliged to do (such as a landlord repairing a building), or prevents someone doing something they should not (such as blocking your light). If they breach the injunction, they can be sent to prison.

Recent cases have clarified when the court will grant an injunction in property disputes. In the leading case of Coventry v Lawrence (2014), the Supreme Court indicated a change in direction, towards awarding damages to compensate for infringement of property rights, instead of always granting an injunction to prevent the infringement. Courts should weigh up competing factors to assess in each case whether an injunction is appropriate. One of the factors is whether damages is adequate compensation, instead of an injunction. The damages would usually be based on the reduction in value of the Claimant’s property.

The new approach was adopted by the county court in Scott v Amiuwu (2015), which involved a dispute between private residential neighbours. The Defendants had built a substantial extension to their house which blocked light to the Claimants’ house. They sought an injunction to force the Defendants to demolish the extension. The court refused an injunction on the grounds that it would be oppressive, and awarded the Claimants damages instead.

However, in Ottercraft v Scandia (2016) the court reached a different conclusion. The Defendant developer needed to erect an external staircase on its property. The Claimants occupied a neighbouring property, and complained to the Defendant that if it put the staircase in the position proposed it would block the Claimants’ light. They threatened to apply for an injunction to prevent it, and the Defendant promised the Claimants that it would halt the work.

Despite this promise, the Defendant went ahead with the work and constructed the staircase. It also failed to comply with the Party Wall Act, i.e. the legislation specifically intended to avoid disputes between neighbours. The Claimants then did ask the court for an injunction. They wanted an order that the Defendant should tear down the staircase. They said it could easily be moved to another location, where it would not interfere with the Claimants’ light.

On the basis of the Coventry case, the Defendant argued that damages would adequately compensate for the Claimants for their loss of light. However, the Court of Appeal took into account the Defendant’s conduct. The court said it had “behaved particularly badly throughout and in an unneighbourly manner”. It had been “high-handed”. What was particularly significant was that the Defendant had undertaken not to build the staircase, and gone back on its word, as well as failing to comply with the Party Wall Act.

The Scandia case should be noted by developers. Their conduct in dealings with people affected by the development may be pored over by the court, many years later and with the unwelcome application of hindsight. It is important to take notes and keep correspondence.

After Coventry, the courts are now more likely to refuse an injunction and award damages. But Scandia shows that in appropriate circumstances they will still order an injunction, particularly where the Defendant has ‘behaved badly’.