Property Bar Assoc

What do you know about the year 1832? Most people know it as the year of the Great Reform Act, which extended the franchise (a bit) and got rid of the rotten boroughs. But for property lawyers, 1832 is is the year the Prescription Act was passed.

The Prescription Act provides a method of establishing certain rights over other people's land, known as "easements". In particular, section 3 of the Act is the most important source of a right to light, that is, the right to prevent your neighbour blocking the sunlight which comes through your windows.

Just pause and reflect on that for a minute. Think of the great edifices of glass and steel going up in our cities. They are designed to maximise the natural light enjoyed by their occupants, but they risk compromising the light enjoyed by the buildings they overshadow. It is not surprising that, in 2018, rights to light are a potent source of dispute. And yet the law which says whether you can complain about a neighbouring building interfering with the light to your living room or office is 186 years old. It was passed by Parliament half a century before Thomas Edison invented the first commercially viable light bulb.

Old law isn't necessarily bad law. Lots of our property law has an ancient lineage: parts of it came over in 1066 with William the Conqueror, and works perfectly well. But the Prescription Act 1832 was described in 1966 as "one of the worst drafted Acts on the Statute Book". The Law Commission recommended substantial changes in 2011 and 2014. Yet nothing has happened. Why? Because Parliament has not found the time to pass legislation to bring the law up to date.

Law involves a partnership between Parliament and the courts, in which Parliament passes legislation and the courts interpret it. That partnership breaks down if parliamentarians think of themselves only as politicians and not as lawmakers. They seem to be more than capable of finding time to pass laws to promote their political goals: well, they did until Brexit bunged up the whole system entirely.

There have been periods in recent years when every incident that made the headlines - from terrorist attacks to dangerous dogs - was followed by a promise to pass a shiny new law to tackle the problem. Finding the time to enact legislation which has no votes in it is much more difficult. Nobody comes out on the streets to demand repeal of the Prescription Act 1832. Reform of "lawyer's law" is not sexy, but it is still important. You may not care about the arcane rules which govern rights to light: until, that is, the development next door casts you into darkness. 

Joanne Wicks QC

Chair of the Property Bar Association