Coventry & Others v Lawrence & Shields


Supreme Court reviews and changes law as to private nuisance and appropriate remedies.

The Message

The law as to interference with neighbouring land has changed.

The Case

The Supreme Court has reviewed the law as to private nuisance and whether an Injunction should be the appropriate remedy

In 2006, Ms Shields and Mr Lawrence, the Claimants, bought a 1950’s bungalow in the countryside. It is situated about 560 meters from the Defendants’ Stadium which was built in 1976 and is used for speedway and stock car racing. Beyond the Stadium, some 860 meters from the bungalow, the Defendants have a Track used for motocross.

The Claimants complained about the noise from the events held every now and then at the Stadium and Track between certain hours. Despite works undertaken by the Defendants pursuant to noise abatement notices served by the Council, the Claimants asserted that the noise still caused an interference with their reasonable enjoyment of their land.

The Defendants claimed that they had planning permission for their use and that the nature of the locality that the Claimants had moved to should be fully taken into account in deciding whether they were acting unreasonably. They also claimed a right to cause a noise nuisance based on over 20 years use of the Stadium and Track.

At first instance, the Claimants succeeded (notwithstanding their bungalow had been badly fire damaged in 2010 and was uninhabitable) and an injunction was granted (from when occupation of the bungalow resumed) to restrain the Defendants from committing any further noise nuisance. However, the Defendants then successfully appealed and, given the importance of the legal issues, the case was finally determined by the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court reviewed at length both the law as to nuisance and as to whether injunctive relief should be so readily granted and, in a ground-breaking Judgment, it held as follows:

  1. It is possible to acquire a right to cause an unlawful amount of noise or any other nuisance. However, this involves the use being unlawful for more than 20 years and, in this case, the Defendants could not prove that the current level of disturbance had taken place for more than 20 years before these proceedings commenced.
  2. It is no defence to claim that a claimant has come to the nuisance i.e. bought a property with knowledge of it. However, it may be a defence if the nuisance only arises because the use of the claimant’s land is changed, such as from industrial to residential use.
  3. The Court needs to take into account the nature of the locality when deciding whether the use of land is unreasonable. In this case, it was to be assumed the Stadium and Track were part of the locality but were operating at lawful noise levels.
  4. Whilst the existence of planning permission for the use complained about, and the public interest generally, may be relevant to the appropriate remedy, it is not relevant to whether the use constitutes a nuisance to any adjoining landowner as the Local Authority takes many factors into account when deciding to grant planning permission and not just the interests of adjoining owners. Furthermore, the planning legislation provides no compensation for any loss caused to an adjoining owner.
  5. Whilst an injunction to prevent the wrong continuing is the prima facie remedy in a nuisance claim, the law has been far too inflexible in this respect in recent years and the Courts’ ability to award damages as an adequate remedy instead of an injunction should be used far more frequently in appropriate cases where the wrongdoer has not acted unlawfully deliberately and/or where there is planning permission for such use and/or the public interest is served by the use continuing. The Courts need to have regard to all factors and exercise its discretion to do justice to all parties.

Whilst the Supreme Court allowed the appeal on the basis that the noise did constitute a nuisance, it opened the door wide for the Defendants to go back to the Judge to discharge the Injunction on the basis that damages would be an adequate remedy. Such damages can, but only in appropriate cases, be based on a share of the profits made from the unlawful use of the neighbouring land.