Flat owners should always read the lease so they understand their rights and obligations
Always read the lease. This is important advice for anyone who lives in a leasehold flat, because the terms of your lease set out exactly what you can and can?t do to your property. This is something that not all flat owners appreciate ? but understanding what your lease terms mean is vital, especially if you want to make alterations or improvements to your home.
Unfortunately, leases are not always easy to understand. They are often written in what most of us would think of as ?legalise?, so if you?re not a lawyer, the lease terms and various covenants that a leaseholder must abide by are difficult to unravel.
A recent case that went as far as the Supreme Court is a perfect example of why you must always read the lease. In Duval v 11-13 Randolph Crescent Ltd, the leases in a block of flats contained a covenant, clause 2.6, preventing the flat owners from making alterations or improvements to their homes without prior written consent from the landlord. So far, so good. However, each lease also contained what is known as an ?absolute covenant?, clause 2.7, which prevented leaseholders from cutting into any roofs, walls, ceilings or services, together with an additional clause that meant the landlord must stick to the rules set out by any covenants in the leases of other homeowners that were similar to clause 2.7.
Confused yet? One of the leaseholders, Mrs Winfield, was. She fell foul of the covenants in her lease when she asked her landlord for a licence to carry out works to her flat that one of her neighbours, Dr Duval, objected to. The works involved removing part of a load-bearing wall and were initially refused by the landlord. However, having obtained reports from an engineer and an architect to confirm the works could be carried out safely and without causing any damage either to the building as a whole or to the other flats, the landlord decided that a licence could be granted.
The Duvals then took the case to court on the basis that the landlord did not have the power to permit Mrs Winfield to act in breach of clause 2.7 of her lease without the prior consent of all the other leaseholders in the building. Initially, the court found in favour of the Duvals, agreeing that the landlord had no power to waive any of the covenants in clause 2 without the prior consent of all of the leaseholders in the building. However, on appeal, the Central London County Court found in favour of the landlord. Finally, following a further appeal, the Supreme Court unanimously found in favour of the Duvals.
The upshot of this complicated but very important case is that the lease, not the landlord, is king. If the lease is clear, no problem. Leaseholders and landlords must abide by the terms. However, all too often, as this case shows, even if you do read the lease it is not always clear what is and what isn?t allowed and legal interpretation is required.
At Ringley, we have a legal practice of our own, Ringley Law LLP, which specialises in property law and has many years of experience in advising flat owners about their leases. If you are planning alterations to your flat, or have any other lease-related issues, do take legal advice. Getting it wrong could involve you, not only in long-drawn-out wrangles with your landlord and/or your neighbours but it could also end in a costly court case. So if you?re finding it hard to read the lease for your flat, give our friendly legal team a call - you?ll be glad you did.
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Author : Mary-Anne Bowring
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