HUNTER v CANARY WHARF LTD

The tortious claim for nuisance, and the rights of those in occupation of land have for many years, been exclusively limited in the preservation of common law sensibility.

On this occasion, a collective suit for both nuisance and negligence by local residents against that of corporate rights, produced an unexpected outcome.

After the demise of dockland trading in London, the areas once frequented by countless importers and exporters, fell foul of disuse and neglect.

After lengthy consideration, both immediate and future plans for the site were subject to the Secretary of State who, recognising the need for both housing and commercial exploitation, took advantage of sections 134(1) and 135(1) of the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980, in order to commission urban regeneration of the London docklands area under the formation of the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC).

In line with the need for such redevelopment, the 1980 Act allowed the Minister to override typical planning permission requirements, as laid down in the Town and Country Planning Act 1971.

This resulted in the construction of the 800ft tall Canary Wharf Tower by nominated contractors Olympia and York Canary Wharf Ltd, along with interlinking roads to the surrounding city over a four-year period.

This ambitious project resulted in two tortious claims by 500-700 local residents; the first of which, centred around the interruption and in some cases, total disruption of television broadcast signals after the completion of the tower, and excessive amounts of materials dust invading the homes of the claimants throughout the construction period.

The case itself drew mixed, and yet keen attention of the the courts, primarily because the history of nuisance and negligence were to some extents, intertwined, and thus dependant on the principles found within property law.

In the first matter, the rights of those wishing to build upon their land stem from the long-standing principle that in the exception of easements or restrictive covenants, every man has the freedom to build as he pleases, as was stressed by Hardwicke LC in Attorney-General v Doughty, when he said:

“I know no general rule of common law, which warrants that, or says, that building so as to stop another’s prospect is a nuisance. Was that the case, there could be no great towns; and I must grant injunctions to all the new buildings in this town . . .”

Attorney-General v Doughty

Furthermore, in a recent German case G v City of Hamburg, the Supreme Court had ruled unequivocally that where a resident had suffered diminished television broadcast signals following the construction of a nine-storey hospital, such effects were not subject to the powers of their Civil Code; and so, no claim for nuisance could stand.

This reflected the stance of the English courts; therefore, support for such a claim would not be found, despite the large numbers of complaints.

Turning to the issue of dust, the principles of property law were again invoked, inasmuch as established academic precedent argued that:

“In true cases of nuisance the interest of the plaintiff which is invaded is not the interest of bodily security but the interest of liberty to exercise rights over land in the amplest manner. A sulphurous chimney in a residential area is not a nuisance because it makes householders cough and splutter but because it prevents them taking their ease in their gardens. It is for this reason that the plaintiff in an action for nuisance must show some title to realty.”

However, this definite founding for claim had seen its critics, when in Foster v Warblington Urban District Council, the Court of Appeal had ruled that a person in exclusive possession of land could sue, despite no evidence of title.

This principle was further promoted in Khorasandjian v Bush; in which, a young girl had been subjected to continuous phone calls from a spurned former partner while living with her parents; and where, Dillon LJ had also remarked that it was:

“[R]idiculous if in this present age the law is that the making of deliberately harassing and pestering telephone calls to a person is only actionable in the civil courts if the recipient of the calls happens to have the freehold or a leasehold proprietary interest in the premises in which he or she has received the calls.”

Khorasandijian v Bush

Here, the court followed Canadian case Motherwell v Motherwell, where it was held by the Appellate Court, that not only was the legal owner entitled to remedy for nuisance, but the wife too, despite her having nothing more than occupational rights.

Unfortunately, the problems facing the claimants was that a large majority of them were spouses, children and in some instances, extended family.

This placed the courts in a difficult position when recognising the need to consider expanding upon private claimant rights in nuisance cases beyond that of land owners, especially with similar changes to spousal rights in both the Matrimonial Homes Act 1983 and the Family Law Act 1996.

When first heard, the court held that television signal interference was a claimable right under nuisance, and that exclusive possession of land was the qualifying criteria for claim in both instances.

However, the Court of Appeal reversed the decision; and so, the original defendants appealed to the House of Lords, while the claimants cross-appealed.

With forbearance of the seemingly inextricable limitations of both tort and property laws, it was (after lengthy discussion) unanimously held that the despite the changes in modern society and the family units, the strict rule of exclusive possession remained steadfast; not on grounds of unreasonableness, but in the prevention of arbitrary awards for complainants having little to no proprietary rights.

Hence the House reversed the Court of Appeal’s findings, while reminding the parties that:

“Nuisance is a tort against land, including interests in land such as easements and profits. A plaintiff must therefore have an interest in the land affected by the nuisance.”