Is the law on servitudes at 'sixes and sevens' for property owners

Surely when you buy a property or land, you need to be absolutely certain as to what you have just bought?  When it comes to servitude rights of access however, the law has never been crystal clear. Servitudes are access rights which are granted over one property for the benefit of the neighbouring property.   "Access" can mean pedestrian access, vehicular access, or even just access in the sense of having a pipe run through your neighbour's land. Servitudes therefore restrict property ownership on the one hand and benefit property ownership on the other.

Gate Closed Road

Harper Macleod's litigation team successfully defended a court action on the subject of servitude rights, and when they can be implied.  The decision of the Court of Session in that case served as a timely reminder of what can go wrong when a property does not clearly benefit from all necessary ancillary rights required for its use.

Creating servitudes

Servitude rights are "real rights".  In other words, they are rights which attach to the land and are capable of binding each subsequent purchaser of the land.   Given the consequences of servitudes, you would think that it goes without saying that they would be written down, recorded, even, in the Land Register so that every time you buy a property, searches can be carried out to ensure you know precisely what you are about to buy (or not buy).  

Well, therein lies the confusion.  Because of the ways in which servitudes can be created, they do not actually need to be written down anywhere in order to be valid.  With this level of uncertainty, the law on servitudes can be at sixes and sevens and they have understandably been the subject of much litigation over the years.

There are three ways in which servitudes are created: 

  • they can be expressly granted by one party in favour of another and documented in a formal deed of conveyance;
  • they can be implied through the surrounding facts and circumstances if the servitude is said to be necessary for the reasonable and comfortable enjoyment of land; or
  • they can be created though usage which is open, peaceable and without judicial interruption for a period of 20 years. 

Of these three, only the express grant is in writing so you can easily see why confusion and disputes may arise.

A case in point

So when the law is at sixes and sevens, what better way to help clear up matters than referring to a case involving numbers 6 and 7 Coates Crescent, Edinburgh. 

At the bottom of the back yards, separating the two properties, there used to be a gate.  This was claimed as the gateway to an implied servitude right of pedestrian access in favour of 6 Coates Crescent, over the land at 7 Coates Crescent.  The gate is now gone, but not before it was the subject of 4 years of litigation in Edinburgh.  

Having heard the appeal, the court refused to declare the existence of an implied servitude right of access.  The case report contains helpful judicial commentary on how the courts will approach the question of whether real rights are to be implied into an agreement between parties . The court commented that any purchaser of property should be able to easily discover the existence of real rights. Normally this is achieved by express grant and the recording of the relevant deeds in the Land Register. Implied rights, however, do not appear in the Land Register. 

In establishing an implied right, it is necessary to look at the relationship between (i) use, on the one hand and (ii) necessity for the convenient and comfortable enjoyment of the land, on the other.  It is a high test to meet and the courts will be slow to imply such rights except where it is reasonably obvious from the surrounding facts and circumstances that such rights exist.  To be certain of their existence therefore, it really is a must to ensure all such rights are documented at the time of purchase.

An unwritten servitude can also be created through use which is open, peaceable and without judicial interruption for a period of 20 years.  All that means is that for 20 years, a right of access has been taken without challenge.  That sounds simple enough, but proving the openness and peacefulness of that use over a long period of time is often where the difficulty lies. 

Practical implications

The decision of the Inner House highlights the importance of ensuring that all ancillary rights required for use of a property are recorded within the titles or are obtained as part of the purchase. 

It might be tempting to rely on sworn statements of past use but if those do not meet the criteria for a servitude created by prescription or an implied servitude, then they will not create the necessary "real right".

On the other hand, if you are a proprietor whose land is being used as a right of access, then you would do well to challenge that usage to halt rights attaching to your land.  If time is against you, then judicial interruption through the raising of court action is the only certain way to stop the 20 year prescriptive period from running down.

Get in touch

For any advice regarding the above, do not hesitate to get in contact with a member of our Real Estate or Dispute Resolution teams.