Rights to light: making the law more transparent

In a report published today, the Law Commission is recommending reforms to the law governing rights to light that will strike a balance between the interests of landowners and the law’s recognition of the need for appropriate development.

Rights to light are private property rights that benefit both residential and commercial buildings. They are not part of planning law.

Not all buildings have rights to light. They can be given by one neighbour to another. Or they can be acquired informally, over time (by “prescription”). This can happen if light has come through a window uninterrupted for 20 years.

Issues can arise when a landowner wants to put up a building that may interfere with a neighbour’s right to light. Under the current law there is no time limit for a neighbour to claim that their right to light would be infringed. Disputes can drag on for years, even until after a development has been built. In these circumstances, the courts can order a developer to halt construction, demolish the building or pay the landowner damages.

The Commission is recommending:

  • a statutory notice procedure that would allow landowners to require their neighbours to tell them, within a specified time, if they intend to seek an injunction to protect their right to light, or to lose the potential for that remedy to be granted
  • a statutory test to clarify when courts may order damages to be paid rather than halting development or ordering demolition
  • an updated version of the procedure that allows landowners to prevent their neighbours from acquiring rights to light by prescription
  • amendment of the law governing where an unused right to light is treated as abandoned, and
  • a power for the Lands Chamber of the Upper Tribunal to discharge or modify obsolete or unused rights to light.

Following concerns expressed by consultees, the Law Commission is not recommending the abolition of the informal acquisition of rights to light by prescription. The Commission’s 2011 recommendations for reform of the general law of prescription would simplify and clarify this area, making disputes less protracted and expensive for all parties.

Professor Elizabeth Cooke, the Law Commissioner leading the project, says:

“Rights to light are important, particularly for homeowners. The law must continue to protect them. But it is essential that the law provides an appropriate balance between the protection of light and the development of the modern, high-quality residential, office and commercial premises we need in our town and city centres.

“Our reforms will clarify the legal relationships between the parties, bring transparency and certainty, and reduce the scope for disputes. Where disputes do happen, it will be easier and quicker for landowners, developers and the courts to resolve them.

“This work builds on and, in some respects, depends on, the recommendations we made in 2011 for reforming the general law of easements. We look forward to a response from Government to both these important reports.”

The report, Rights to Light, is available on the Law Commission’s website: www.lawcom.gov.uk.

Notes for editors
1. The Law Commission is a non-political independent body, set up by Parliament in 1965 to keep all the law of England and Wales under review, and to recommend reform where it is needed.
2. For more details on this project, visit:  http://lawcommission.justice.gov.uk/areas/rights-to-light.htm
3. The 2011 report, Making Land Work: Easements, Covenants and Profits a Prendre, is available at: http://lawcommission.justice.gov.uk/areas/easements.htm
4. For all press queries please contact:
Phil Hodgson, Head of External Relations:  020 3334 3305
Jackie Samuel:  020 3334 3648
Email:  communications@lawcommission.gsi.gov.uk