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Tort of nuisance: noise

This content applies to England & Wales

How individuals can take action against noise as a tort of nuisance .

Noise may constitute nuisance.

Nuisance is a common law tort, or civil wrong, that developed through case law and statute law. Any private individual whose right of enjoyment over her/his land is hindered by the actions (or inaction) of neighbors can bring a claim in nuisance against the occupiers of the property. A successful action may result in the abatement of the nuisance, damages, or an injunction.

Public and private nuisance

There are two types of common law nuisance:

  • public nuisance - a common law offence: this is where an act or failure to act adversely affects the comfort or quality of life of the public generally or a class of citizens
  • private nuisance - a common law tort: this is a substantial interference by the owner or occupier of a property with the use and enjoyment of neighbouring premises. This is the most relevant to an occupier of land affected by noise coming from neighbouring land.

The same definitions above apply to cases of statutory nuisance[1] (see the page on the Definition of statutory nuisance in the section on Environmental Protection Act 1990).

Noise nuisance

Nuisance has been found in a number of cases relating to noise, including:

  • building[2] and demolition[3] work
  • cockerels[4]
  • lorries[5]
  • noise at night, even though the disturbance was for one night only[6]
  • noise from a car auction site,[7] or a speedway and stock-car racing stadium.[8]
  • excessive dog barking and shouting [9]

In one case,[10] a council built a housing estate with a children's playground next to the claimant's garden. The playground was used continually by children of all ages, the noise of which disturbed the claimant and his wife. The court awarded £200 damages, and granted an injunction limiting the usage of the playground to children under 13 and between the hours of 10am and 6.30pm.

Action against neighbour tenants

An occupier who is affected by noise caused by a neighbouring tenant will have difficulty taking action against the tenant's landlord. This is because a landlord who has granted a tenancy is no longer in possession of the property and does not have control over it. Hence, in most cases s/he will not be liable for the nuisance caused by the tenant. However, where the owner of a property had allowed her daughter to live there on a bare licence (as opposed to under a tenancy), the owner/landlord was found to be liable for the nuisance caused by the daughter and her dog because, on the facts, she had retained possession of and control over the property throughout her daughter's residence there and had not acted to abate it after becoming aware of the nuisance.[11]

An occupier cannot claim damages against a landlord for noise nuisance that is non-deliberate, eg noise caused by poor sound insulation, because no nuisance arises as a result of the normal and ordinary use of premises and the landlord will not be able to authorise it expressly.[12]

Similarly, if the landlord fails to act against a tenant in cases of an alleged breach of tenancy (eg the tenant causes disturbance to a neighbour), the occupier affected by the noise will not be able to take action against the landlord for nuisance or negligence.[13]

It is important to note that tenants with noisy neighbours may be able to take action against the perpetrators. In one case, it was decided that the freeholder was not liable for the nuisance where a leaseholder had carried out alterations to a flat in breach of their lease agreement and installed inadequately sound-proofed flooring. However, the affected tenant (a long leaseholder of the flat below) was able to bring proceedings for damages and an application for an injunction requiring works to remedy the nuisance against the leaseholder and the occupiers of the flat above (who were found to have contributed to the nuisance).[14]

For information about nuisance caused by disrepair, see the section on Liability for disrepair.

General principles: private nuisance

The Supreme Court laid down a number of principles applicable when considering a claim of private nuisance by noise:[15]

  • whether noise constitutes nuisance must be assessed by reference to the character of the locality because what can constitute nuisance in one area may not be nuisance in another
  • the activity creating the noise can be part of the character of the locality but only to the extent that they do not cause nuisance
  • having planning permission to carry out an activity which causes nuisance by noise is not a defence, although the terms and conditions of the planning permission might be relevant in some cases
  • it is not a defence to show that the complainant 'came to the nuisance' (eg moved into a property after the nuisance had started), unless s/he changed the use of her/his land/property and as a result the pre-existing activity became a nuisance, but was not before
  • the normal remedy in a case of nuisance is an injunction to restrain the activity causing nuisance (in addition to damages for the past nuisance), but in presence of the right circumstances the court has discretion to award damages in lieu of an injunction. In such cases, the damages will reflect the reduction in value of the complainant's property resulting from the continuation of the nuisance
  • if the perpetrator can show that the noisy activity complained of has been carried out for 20 years, not necessarily continuously, this can establish a right to commit noise by prescription. This will be a defence to claim of private nuisance by noise.

[1] National Coal Board v Neath BC [1976] 2 ER 478.

[2] Andrae v Selfridge and Co Ltd [1938] Ch 1, [1937] All ER 255.

[3] Clark v Lloyd's Bank Ltd [1910] 79 Law Journal Ch 645, 103 LT 211.

[4] Leeman v Montagu [1936] 2 All ER 1677.

[5] Gillingham BC v Medway (Chatham) Dock Co Ltd [1993] Law Reports: QBD 343, [1992] 3 All ER 923.

[6] Andrae v Selfridge and Co Ltd [1938] Ch 1, [1937] 3 All ER 255.

[7] Thomas v Merthyr Tydfil Car Auction Ltd [2012] EWHC 2654 (QB).

[8] Coventry and others v Lawrence and another [2014] UKSC 13.

[9] Cocking v (1) Eacott (2) Waring [2016] EWCA Civ 140.

[10] Dunton v Dover DC [1978] 76 LGR 87.

[11] Cocking v (1) Eacott (2) Waring [2016] EWCA Civ 140.

[12] Southwark LBC v Mills; Baxter v Camden LBC [1999] UKHL 40.

[13] Mowan v Wandsworth LBC [2000] EWCA Civ 357; Malzy v Eicholz [1916] 2 KB 308.

[14] Fouladi v Darout Ltd and others [2018] EWHC 3501 (Ch).

[15] Coventry and others v Lawrence and another [2014] UKSC 13.

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