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Defences

Interference with easement

Defences to claim – estoppel and laches

Lester v Woodgate
[2010] EWCA Civ 199

Summary

The dominant owner can lose his right to complain of an actionable interference with an easement if an estoppel is made out. The estoppel can arise by virtue of a mere acquiescence in the interference, in circumstances where an abandonment of the easement would not be made out on the traditional tests. The acquiescence need not last long to give rise to an estoppel. Here, the works were carried out in 1999-2000, and the alleged reliance occurred in 2000. Accordingly, the estoppel arose from an acquiescence in a state of affairs that lasted a matter of months.

Furthermore, it can arise even if the servient owner was well aware that he was committing a nuisance at the time the relevant works were carried out, provided that there was reliance.

A person can only be precluded from seeking an equitable remedy by laches by virtue of their own delay. Delay by a predecessor does not count for this purpose.

Facts

D’s predecessor granted C’s predecessor a right of way over D’s land, in 1980. In 1999-2000 works were carried out by D’s predecessor, which amounted to a nuisance and interference with the right of way. Those works involved, amongst other things, the construction of a parking space. C’s predecessor took no steps to prevent D’s predecessor from carrying out the works, or from using the parking space, but C later sought an injunction and damages; D defended, relying on (a) laches and (b) estoppel.

Decision

1. Laches only applies where the claimant himself is guilty of delay. However, here the fact that no steps were taken within a year of the claimant purchasing was sufficient for the doctrine to operate.

2. The claimant’s predecessor acquiesced in the carrying out of the works, in that he knew of it and did not take any steps to prevent the completion of the works, or the user of the resultant car parking space. (He had, in contrast, complained about the dumping of rubble on the claimant’s land). Passive acquiescence is sufficient to found an estoppel.

3. An estoppel can arise even if the interference with the claimant’s rights is not borne of a mistake – i.e. it can arise even if the defendant acted deliberately in infringing the claimant’s rights.

4. The defendant’s predecessor relied on the claimant’s predecessor’s failure to object, in selling the defendant’s property to the defendant without notice of any dispute about the right to use the car parking space. This was sufficient to render it unconscionable for the claimant to seek to complain of the nuisance / interference with the right of way.

5. There was no reason why estoppel should not apply to the case of interference with an easement in the same way that it applies to interference with other property rights.

6. The effect of an estoppel is to prevent the enforcement of the legal right (i.e. to preclude a damages claim as well as to preclude the Court from granting an equitable remedy).

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