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LEASE INTERPRETATION: WHAT DO COURTS AND TRIBUNALS LOOK AT?

We have over the past few months referred in our articles to the fact that the starting point for LVTs and Courts in leasehold disputes is the lease itself.

Often residential leases were drafted many years ago and are in a format which even to professionals can be difficult to assess but what are the steps that the Court and LVT go through to determine the terms?

Initially they will go through the document. For a long residential lease all of the terms must be in writing. Some terms will be very clear and easily interpreted. This will often be the case in respect of terms over payment of ground rent and insurance. Certainly for any lease which has changed hands over recent years it should be in a format covering all the major areas such as rent, insurance, service charge, repairs etc as conveyancing solicitors should be checking that the lease complies with Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML) requirements. These requirements require these fundamental terms to be covered in a clear and satisfactory manner.

What is often more complicated is the extent of a clause. This can be particularly true of service charge clauses. Many of these clauses are written in a very general manner with some kind of “sweeping up” clause whose function is meant to be to cover everything not expressly stated. Be warned they do not always work!

The general principle is that clauses are given a meaning which a reasonable person would understand and words are given there ordinary meaning. Courts will not tie themselves in knots in carrying out an interpretation even if the natural meaning gives a strange result. If this is the case other remedies may be open to the parties such as rectification if they can fulfil the grounds. The Courts and LVT will not imply terms into an agreement and will expect all the terms to be present in the document relied upon.

If then a clause is still unclear and or could be interpreted in a number of ways generally it will be decided in a way most beneficial to the person not seeking to rely upon that clause. This is due to the fact that the burden of proof will be upon the person relying upon the clause to prove that meaning. It is for this reason that “sweeping up” clauses often do not achieve the desired effect.

Usually the terms are clear but it is vital that proper consideration is given to the terms. Anyone buying a lease (or a freehold) should understand what the rights and responsibilities under the lease are. Certainly as can be seen in the published LVT decisions often in service charges Freeholders and their Agents try and argue that it would be perverse to not allow them to recover management fees, accountancy fees etc and whilst a Panel may have sympathy if the lease does not cover this the hands of the LVT are bound.

Again early consideration of the contractual terms can prevent disputes and if in doubt parties would be well advised to take specialist advice to avoid costly Court or LVT cases.

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