High Court ruling on rights of way and ownership in Price v Nunn case addresses prescriptive rights, estoppel, and statutory interpretation.

Citation: [2023] EWHC 3200 (Ch)
Judgment on

Introduction

The High Court of Justice’s decision in Christopher Price v Jonathan Nunn [2023] EWHC 3200 (Ch) addresses a protracted dispute concerning rights of way and the ownership of a tract of land referred to as the Upper Track. The case highlights significant issues of prescriptive rights, statutory interpretation, and principles of estoppel within the framework of contentious neighbour disputes related to property law.

Key Facts

The historical landscape of the dispute concerns the rights over the Upper Track, Lower Track, and the Pitch, with the core question centered on whether a private vehicular right of way existed over the Upper Track, pursuant to Section 67(5) of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 (NERCA). Christopher Price claimed ownership of the Upper Track, with Jonathan Nunn countering that Price was estopped from his claims based on previous judgments and that he himself had established a private right of way under NERCA.

Several legal principles underpin the judgment:

  1. Res Judicata and Abuse of Process: The court considered whether previous judgments and proceedings, such as the 1976 Proceedings, precluded the pursuance of current claims due to principles of res judicata and abuse of process.

  2. Turnpike Act Interpretation: The interpretation of the Turnpike Act was pivotal in determining the historical status of the disputed tracks as common highways before 1800, influencing whether public vehicular rights of way existed for the purposes of NERCA.

  3. ”Once a Highway, Always a Highway”: This common law maxim, suggesting that a highway remains unless lawfully stopped up or physically destroyed, was debated concerning its application to the facts of this case.

  4. NERCA Section 67: The application of NERCA, particularly Section 67, which discusses the extinguishing and transformation of public rights of way into private ones, was central to Nunn’s counterclaim.

  5. Ad Medium Filum Principle: The presumption that the owner of land adjoining a highway owns the soil up to the highway’s center line, unless evidence proves otherwise, was invoked regarding the ownership questions.

  6. Ownership Presumptions: The court scrutinized the conveyance history and the 1862 Land Registration Act to determine the legitimacy of ownership claims over the Upper Track.

  7. Practical Necessity under NERCA: The court evaluated whether the access via vehicle was “reasonably necessary” for the enjoyment of Nunn’s property, as required for a private right of way to arise under NERCA.

  8. Estoppel: The decision examines whether previous findings, concessions, or statements made by parties in earlier disputes barred the current claims due to estoppel.

Outcomes

The conclusion was multifaceted:

  1. Nunn was not estopped from claiming a private right of way under NERCA, and the court was ready to entertain his claim.

  2. The court found that it was not established that the Upper Track was part of a public vehicular route, Route 3, before 1800, nor it was deemed a highway at the time of the Turnpike Act.

  3. Price failed to establish ownership over the entirety of the Upper Track, with the court rejecting his claim to the whole track.

  4. The court found in Price’s favour that he owns half of the Upper Track under the ad medium filum principle.

  5. Any claim that the Upper Track alone was a public right of way for mechanically propelled vehicles under NERCA failed, given there was no evidence of connection to the Turnpike Road in recent times.

Conclusion

The High Court’s decision in Price v Nunn is an intricate exploration of historical rights of way, evidentiary requirements for establishing a prescriptive right, and the practical necessities for land access under NERCA. The ruling provides guidance on the weight of previous judgments, interpretation of historical statutes in the context of modern proprietary claims, and a nuanced approach to the application of legal presumptions in ownership disputes between neighbors. This judgment underscores the principle that modern litigation must consider the historical context and the enduring legal effect of a right of way, alongside established legal doctrines like estoppel and statutory interpretation.

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