If you, or one of your neighbours is planning on doing any building work, perhaps a new extension, a shed, or even a new garden wall and it obstructs the light to another property, you need to know about the ‘Right to Light’. If you don’t, it could cost you money. ‘Right to Light’ is an area filled with misconceptions. Most people think it is all part of the planning process and only become aware of its true implications when a solicitor’s letter drops through the door in the middle of a building project.

 If you inadvertently infringe someone’s ‘Right to Light’, you may be forced to alter your building or pay compensation. In some extreme cases it can even lead to an injunction on any further work. The most high profile cases have involved commercial developments. In recent times, a number of developers have been forced into hugely expensive rebuilds as a result of their failure to address the ‘Right to Light’ of nearby buildings, but even in a domestic context, infringements can have serious consequences.

People assume that ‘Right to Light’ is part of the planning process. Unfortunately, they are incorrect. Planners will sometimes consider it, but the fact is, it’s an entirely separate legal issue (ie Common Law rather than Planning Law). A planning decision has no legal standing in this area. It means that legal action can be taken even if the building work already has planning permission or is covered by permitted development rights.

Under the Prescription Act of 1832, a property owner automatically acquires the ‘Right to Light’ if the building has enjoyed the benefit of the light through defined apertures (ie windows) for an uninterrupted period of 20 years.

This does not mean that the light is entirely protected; the Act only gives you the right to a minimum level. This is measured using some fairly complex formulae, but as a rough rule of thumb, just over half the room should be lit by natural light in a domestic property and a little less in a commercial one. The planners are unlikely to have made any lighting level calculations when assessing a planning application and will probably be totally unaware if there is an infringement of the ‘Right to Light’.

So what do you need to do if you are on either side of the fence in a dispute over light levels?

If you are the one doing the building, have a think about the likely impact before you begin work. Discuss it with your builder. Are you likely to block light to a neighbour’s window, for example? If you are, you may need some guidance from a specialist surveyor before proceeding. If you are on the receiving end and it's your light that's being reduced, you should also seek expert advice on your best course of action. Any disputes are handled by the courts and the usual outcome is a compensation payment. However, taking someone to court can be very expensive, so it is best avoid it if you can. Instead, you should attempt to negotiate a mutually acceptable compromise.

The information we provide is our personal opinion and should not be relied upon for legal advice. Should you need legal advice or guidance please contact an appropriate professional.