Law lords listen to noisy neighbours

Roger Pearson reports on the House of Lord’s ruling that landlords and councils are not responsible for their tenants’ noise.

The tabloid press nicknamed the case “Nookie Towers”. But there has been a far more serious side to the action of London Borough of Southwark v Mills. The case has run its course through the High Court and Appeal Court and ended with a ground-breaking judgment in the House of Lords last month.

In their decision, the law lords ruled that a landlord was not liable to insulate property to protect tenants from the everyday sounds of their neighbours.

Five law lords held that the London boroughs of Southwark and Camden could not be made to foot the cost of soundproofing a block of 20 flats in Casino Avenue, Herne Hill, and a converted Victorian house in Kentish Town.

The decision is good news for local authorities and landlords. Had the outcome been different the cost to local authorities nationwide would have been staggering. Southwark estimated the cost of soundproofing the Casino Road flats and others in the area would run to £272,000. The cost borough-wide would run to £37m. And the council claims that to bring all its housing stock up to acceptable modern standards, including soundproofing, would cost nearly £1.3bn.

Tenants had argued that they had to put up with “all the private and most intimate and other moments of their neighbours’ lives”. This included sounds of them love-making, using toilets, opening and closing doors and switching on and off lights.

They claimed this interfered with their quiet enjoyment of the flats.

Lords Slynn, Steyn, Hoffmann, Clyde and Millett upheld the Appeal Court view that in the eyes of the law “quiet enjoyment” had nothing to do with freedom from the noise of normal domestic activities.

They considered that the normal sounds of everyday life should be expected and if tenants take property which does not have adequate soundproofing the landlord cannot be held liable later to soundproof the premises in order to deaden the sounds passing between the properties.

Lord Hoffman said the neighbours were not unreasonably noisy. He said: “For the most part, they are behaving quite normally.” The landlords, he said, were not liable for this noise.

Andrew Brookes, partner in the housing department at Anthony Gold Lerman & Muirhead, who represented the tenants in the case, says the decision will affect “thousands of tenants and leaseholders”.

He says: “Mindful of the cost to landlords, particularly local authority landlords, and concerned that a decision in favour of the tenants would extend the common law to fill a vacuum conspicuously left by Parliament, their lordships unanimously dismissed the appeals.”

The decision also examined and redefined the covenant of quiet enjoyment. Brookes says: “Their lordships made it clear that the covenant did not just cover ‘direct and physical’ injury by a landlord, for example by a landlord harassing one of his tenants, but that it extended much further.”

Lord Slynn said: “Noise in principle may constitute a substantial interference with the possession or ordinary enjoyment of the demised premises.”

Brookes says: “This means that, for example, if a landlord carries out a conversion to a flat while let to a tenant and the conversion results in reduced soundproofing, this may amount to a breach of covenant of quiet enjoyment and the tenant will have a common law cause of action.

“Although this will not help the appellant tenants in this case, it may assist some tenants.”