A modern industrialised society may bring many benefits but it raises noise levels. As the levels increase, so too do people's preoccupation with them. What homeowner today would not be worried about noisy neighbours? Who does not scan the transport secretary Alistair Darling's announcements to see whether their house might be affected by a new flight path? Greater sensitivity to noise results in more cases about noise. Here are two recent examples.
The common law has long recognised that noise can be an actionable nuisance. Owners or tenants are entitled to peaceful enjoyment of their homes. If they suffer noise above what might reasonably be expected in their neighbourhood, they may be able to sue the perpetrator.
Obviously the character of the locality has an important bearing on what is acceptable and what is not. As one Victorian judge quaintly put it, "what would be a nuisance in Belgrave Square would not necessarily be so in Bermondsey" (not perhaps a comparison that would be made today).
In the recent case of Stannard vs Al Sharekh (29 July 2002), the law of nuisance came to the aid of the tenant whose life was being spoilt by noisy neighbours upstairs. Stannard had lived in his flat in Kensington for 30 years. For at least 20 of those his occupation had been peaceful and uneventful. But when alterations were made to the flat above, noise problems began.
There were two main causes. First, the layout of the upstairs flat was changed so that its noisy rooms were now located over Stannard's quiet rooms. Second, new floors were installed: marble in the hallway and stone and vinyl in the new kitchen and bathrooms. Stannard gave graphic evidence of the noise made by people walking on these surfaces. This situation was not helped by the fact that his neighbours kept very different hours from him.
In the view of the jointly instructed expert, the complaints of noise were justified.
However the deputy judge, John Slater QC, also had to consider what it was reasonable to expect by way of noise in this Kensington block of flats. He concluded that the penetration of noise from the upper flat was indeed unreasonable and actionable. The remedy he decided on was a mandatory injunction requiring Al Sharekh to carry out any necessary and reasonable works to abate the noise.
Who does not scan the transport secretary’s announcements to see whether their house is affected by a new flight path?
Another recent example of the law assisting a property owner beset by noise is the House of Lords case of Farley vs Skinner (11 October, 2001). Farley was thinking of buying a country house not far from Gatwick, West Sussex. He was anxious that his enjoyment of this new property should not be spoilt by aircraft noise.
When instructing the defendant to survey the house, he specifically asked him to investigate potential aircraft noise. The surveyor reported that it was unlikely the property would suffer greatly from this and so Farley bought it.
Sadly the surveyor was wrong – and negligently so. The house was close to the Mayfield Stack, which meant that at certain times aircraft frequently passed overhead – exactly what Farley had wanted to avoid. He sued and won. Interestingly, the true value of the house was no less than Farley had paid, so he recovered nothing under that head.
What he did recover was general damages for distress and inconvenience.
Historically, the courts have been reluctant to award damages for breach of contract under these heads, and when they have the amounts have been modest. The critical feature in this case was that Farley had specifically asked the surveyor to look into the possibility of aircraft noise.
Since it was clearly an important matter for his peace of mind, the court held that the surveyor's failure in this respect entitled Farley to damages for the distress and inconvenience suffered from aircraft passing overhead. They allowed him £10,000. You and I might not think this a lot but the judges thought it on the generous side.
Tim Elliott QC is a barrister specialising in construction at Keating Chambers.