Peter Reekie comments on what began as a neighbour dispute over a gas meter - Dickinson v Casillas [2017] EWCA Civ 1254.  

As most property lawyers will warn, litigating over access rights against neighbours should be avoided if at all possible – cases can become exceptionally acrimonious and generate a wholly disproportionate amount of costs. 

Part of the difficulty for some clients is that, perhaps not surprisingly, they believe that property rights as set out in a transfer, for example, will be given effect to exactly as written down. 

However, as lawyers will know, this is not always the case. Over the years, the courts have developed judicial principles that are applied to determine the true meaning of a legal document, which in some cases will be somewhat different from the actual wording that it bears. Further, there are different principles applied to construing or interpreting the meaning of the words a document contains from those applied to determine whether missing words should be implied into it. In Arnold v Britton [2015] EWSC 36, Lord Neuberger summed up the current approach to interpretation, and in Marks and Spencer plc v BNP Paribas Securities Services Trust Company (Jersey) Ltd [2015] UKSC 72 the Supreme Court considered the correct approach in relation to implying words into a legal document. 

In our case this month, Dickinson v Casillas [2017] EWCA Civ 1254, neighbours fell out over certain claimed easements by one of them (C) over the other (D)’s property. The claims related to a right to enter to inspect to see if works were needed; for gutters to overhang D’s property; and for a right to inspect the gas and electricity meters for C’s house that had been installed on a flank wall of D’s property. It is this last claim that we concentrate on here. At first instance C succeeded on all the claims. D appealed to the Court of Appeal. 

In the original transfer C’s property had been given the benefit of certain easements over D’s property. The relevant one was, ’To enter…for the purpose of effecting… maintenance repair and decoration of the property transferred as may with more convenience be dealt with by access from the said adjoining land.’ 

Applying the principles of construction as set out in Arnold v Britton (above) it would appear that there was no right to inspect for the purpose of reading meters, the wording of the provision was clear and unambiguous. As Lord Justice David Richards said, ’Maintenance, repair and decoration of a house does not obviously include reading its meters‘. Nonetheless, he pointed out that having put the meters there, the developer could not have intended that the owner of the neighbouring property would have been unable to read them. 

The legal position in relation to implying terms into easements had been restated in Moncrieff v Jamieson [2007] UKHL 42 in which Lord Neuberger said, ’the law will imply a term into a contract, where, in the light of the terms of the contract and the facts known to the parties at the time of the contract, such a term would have been regarded as reasonably necessary or obvious to the parties‘. The present situation was held to be a clear case for the application of this principle. Accordingly, the Court found against D on the appeal on this and also on the other issues not considered here. 

Then there was the question of the costs of C. These had been awarded against D by the recorder and the Court saw no grounds to interfere with this order. They apparently came to ’well over‘ £200,000 (subject to assessment or agreement), which, as the Court said, was ’an extraordinarily high figure for a case involving a minor property dispute‘.