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Battle of the beach huts – licensees or tenants?

The owners of five beach huts have failed in their legal bid to prove that their right to stay indefinitely on land at Portland, Dorset was guaranteed by a gentleman’s agreement they said went back generations.

The case was dismissed in the High Court by Judge Paul Matthews, sitting in Bristol, who ruled that ‘promised’ rights to keep the huts on landowner Howard Legg’s land indefinitely did not apply. He said the hut owners had mistakenly thought their rights relied on informal ‘promises’ and ‘local custom’, but there was no evidence in support.

Instead he ruled that that the hut owners, who did not have any formal written tenancy but paid an annual rent, therefore had annual tenancies and could be evicted following a six month notice period.

Background to the case

The family of Howard Legg, a former borough and county councillor and mayor, has rented the land at Portland Bill to hut owners for 60 years. In 2014, Mr Legg decided to formalise the arrangement by getting the owners to enter into written licence agreements, terminable on 3 months’ notice.

Out of the 71 hut owners, 66 signed but 5 refused. Those 5 were then served with notices to quit on the alternative bases that they either had a licence or a tenancy. Mr Legg said their belief that they had an informal agreement guaranteeing their rights to stay indefinitely so long as they paid rent, was in his eyes ‘absolutely absurd’.

After Judge Matthew’s ruling, the hut owners who refused to sign were evicted and three of the huts were removed.

What legal issues did the case hinge upon?

In deciding the legal grounds on which the hut owners were occupying the land Judge Matthews had to consider three key points:

  • Was the agreement between the landowner and the hut owners a licence to use the land or a tenancy?
  • If deemed to be a tenancy, what kind of tenancy was it?
  • Were the huts part of the land or merely objects (chattels) owned by the occupiers?

In short, it was held that the arrangement between Mr Legg and the hut owners was a tenancy because it granted the key element of exclusive possession of land for a term at a rent.

Even without formal written tenancies in place, Judge Matthews concluded that because the hut owners paid an annual rent to the landowner, the right to site the huts on the land was done so on a year by year basis. This meant the hut owners enjoyed annual periodic tenancies which could only be terminated by serving six months’ notice to quit.

And on the question of chattels, Judge Matthews was clear that the huts were chattels because they were largely insecure and temporary structures capable of being easily moved without risk of substantial damage.

Conclusion

The beach hut owners had an annual tenancy on the land on which their huts were sited. As a result, that tenancy could be determined by notice of the relevant period. They refused to sign Mr Legg’s agreement but notice was given and so they were required to give up possession of their huts.

Implications for landowners

It is always important to remember that any type of real estate – even a beach hut – can result in a legal dispute between a landowner and an occupier. It is important to try to make sure that agreements are legally watertight from the start to minimise any risk of falling out later.

For more information, help and guidance about property disputes please contact Wards Solicitors Disputes and Business Disputes teams.

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