Rights to light
In the case of Coventry v Lawrence , the Supreme Court held that the courts should, in future, be more willing to order that damages be paid as recompense for the breach of someone’s property rights, such as a right to light, instead of almost automatically granting an injunction to order the breach to be put right. This represents a movement away from the strict interpretation of guidelines laid out in a well-known case called Shelfer v City of London Electric Lighting Co .
However, the recent case of Ottercroft Limited v Scandia Care Limited  makes clear that the courts are still perfectly willing to grant an injunction in the right circumstances. This case involved a relatively minor interference with a neighbour’s right to light and it was one which, in other circumstances, might have been compensated by a relatively small amount of money.
A Director of Scandia Care and Scandia Care itself gave undertakings to Ottercroft not to construct a storeroom and staircase adjacent to Ottercroft’s property so as to infringe Ottercroft’s right to light to its property. Ottercroft relied on those undertakings but Scandia Care nevertheless built the staircase and thereby infringed Ottercroft’s right to light.
The County Court ordered the removal or alteration of the staircase to the extent necessary to remove the interference with Ottercroft’s light. On appeal, the Court of Appeal upheld that decision on the basis of the ‘high handed’ behaviour of Scandia Care. Ottercroft had relied on the undertakings given, instead seeking interim relief from the court and should not have been put in a worse position as a result of such reliance. The court was also concerned that, unless such undertakings can be relied on, the courts will be clogged with applications for interim orders for relief in all areas of the law.
This case is a good reminder that the Shelfer principles will still be relevant, but alongside the discretion of the judge, to determine the appropriate award. The judge will, for example, examine the actions of the parties concerned when awarding a remedy. No matter how minor an infringement may be, it cannot be assumed that it will necessarily give rise only to payment of damages.