Litigation over the so-called 'right to light' could be reduced by law reforms, according to the Law Commission. In the final report of a study begun in 2012, the commission pulls back from an earlier proposal to abolish the informal acquisition of rights to light by prescription.

Instead it recommends reforming the general law of prescription and updating the procedure that enables landowners to prevent neighbours from acquiring such rights. 

Rights to light are private property rights that benefit both residential and commercial buildings. They are not part of planning law, but settlement of them can add to the cost and complexity of developments, especially in areas such as the City of London. Under current law there is no time limit for a neighbour to claim that their right to light would be infringed by a development.

Disputes can drag on for years, even after a development has been built, the commission said. In these circumstances, the courts can order a developer to halt construction, demolish the building or pay the landowner damages.

The commission says recommendations published today strike a balance between the interests of landowners and the law’s recognition of the need for appropriate development.

It proposes: 

  • A statutory notice procedure that would allow landowners to require their neighbours to tell them, within a specified time, if they intend to seek an injunction to protect their right to light, or to lose the potential for that remedy to be granted;
  • A statutory test to clarify when courts may order damages to be paid rather than halting development or ordering demolition;
  • Clarification of the law governing where an unused right to light is treated as abandoned, and
  • Power for the Lands Chamber of the Upper Tribunal to discharge or modify obsolete or unused rights to light.

Professor Elizabeth Cooke, the law commissioner leading the project, said: 'It is essential that the law provides an appropriate balance between the protection of light and the development of the modern, high-quality residential, office and commercial premises we need in our town and city centres. 

'Our reforms will clarify the legal relationships between the parties, bring transparency and certainty, and reduce the scope for disputes. Where disputes do happen, it will be easier and quicker for landowners, developers and the courts to resolve them.'

The report, Rights to Light, is available at the commission's website