Court takes common sense approach to land, ignores contract's literal meaning

The High Court has made a decision in relation to a strip of land, thereby construing an unambiguous contract in terms other than in accordance with its literal meaning.

The case, Jones v Oven, arose out of a dispute between neighbours at Little Baddow near Chelmsford in Essex. It concerned a strip of land, some 4 metres wide, which was part of a parcel of land sold and transferred by the claimants in 2003 to the defendants' predecessors in title for the purposes of residential development. Both the contract and the transfer contained a provision that, if a barn on the land transferred were to be demolished at any time thereafter, the transferees would retransfer to the transferors, free of charge and within 28 days, a strip of land 4 metres wide immediately adjacent to the claimant's boundary line. By the transfer the claimants also entered into restrictive covenants so as to bind part of the land which they retained for the benefit of the land being sold by prohibiting the carrying on of activities which would be normal in an agricultural or rural setting, but which would be a nuisance to residential estate neighbours.

The defendants' predecessors in title used part of the land transferred to construct a residential property which they sold to the defendants in 2005. The transfer to the defendants contained a similar provision to the 2003 transfer, but required the defendants to transfer the strip to the claimants in the event of the demolition of the barn. In 2009 the barn was demolished. Since then, the parties were unable to agree on whether a transfer of the strip would or should involve the imposition of the same restrictive covenants on the strip as to the rest of the land which the claimants retained in 2003.

The Judge in the High Court held that the literal meaning of the conditional contract did not include the strip within the definition of the retained land but it would be absurd not to include it as the covenant was aimed at protecting the nearby residence from annoying agricultural activities and could not have been the intended outcome. The result was that the retained land would include the strip. Even if that was wrong reasoning, the Court said it would have implied such a term.

There was, however, no defence to the claim for specific performance of the reconveyance of the strip once the barn was demolished. The Court said that it was not appropriate for it to rewrite the parties’ bargain by imposing terms. Finally, the Court found that the complainant had failed to prove an intention to develop an equine business, as claimed, and that the losses claimed were too remote so only nominal damages were awarded.

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