Positively charged easements? A few thoughts on Gosling v Bradbury [2023] EWHC 199 (Ch)

TW: modern land law, not legal history …

Still with me? OK. This recent easements case is quite interesting (to those of us who like such things) in its treatment of a slightly involved easement.[i] It takes us into a bit of thinking about classification of easements as positive or negative, and into the issue of ancillary easements/rights. It also hints at a rather intriguing question with regard to accommodation and change from supply of something positive to the dominant land, to allowing the continuance of something potentially negative in effect.

The action took place in rural Worcestershire, near Droitwich. Simplifying the facts to their essentials, there were two adjacent pieces of land, Ford Farm (FF) and Rashwood Lodge (RL). It was claimed on behalf of RL that RL had an easement over FF, to obtain water from a borehole on FF, using an electrical pump, located in a barn on FF. The right to the water was fairly uncontroversial – there was an express grant of such a right, from 1982. The issue concerned the electrical pumping. Bradbury had interrupted the electricity supply to the pump, and this meant that the water was no longer pumped to RL. This only came to the attention of the occupant of RL, Ms Dawe, when her supply dried up, so that she could no longer water her horses. [Note to self, insert picture of sad horse here].

What possible argument did Bradbury of FF have for interrupting the electricity supply? Well, the argument made for this not being contrary to an easement in favour of RL was that, although the easement created in 1982 included a right to receive water from the borehole via pump and pipes, and, indeed, a right to go onto FF to check and maintain the equipment, it did not say anything about a right to a supply of electricity.

The judgments suggest that Bradbury, who had acquired FF recently, was well aware of the existence of an easement, but wanted to ‘take back control’ of the land, stop others coming onto it, and perhaps renegotiate the deal with RL so that it was more along the lines of a licence. If this was the plan, it did not work, however.

The right to have the pump powered by electricity, with wiring and apparatus on FF, was held to be a right ancillary to the explicit easement relating to the water received by means of the pump. There was an attempt to argue that, because an ancillary right could not impose a positive obligation on the servient owner,[ii] Bradbury could not be obliged to pay for and allow the supply of electricity, via apparatus on his land. Essentially, Bradbury was trying to say that the interruption of the current was not a positive interference with a genuine easement, but a cessation of positive action to support a claimed but invalid easement. This did not work. Zacaroli J ruled:

‘28. The ancillary right, as declared to exist in this case by the judge, is defined as the right to enjoy the passage of electricity across [FF], including, the right for [Bradbury] to arrange for the supply of electricity onto [FF], the right to make use of infrastructure already in situ on [FF] or to install their own infrastructure and apparatus, and associated rights of access. These impose no positive obligations on [Bradbury or successors in title], but merely require them to suffer things to be done on Ford Farm. They do not, as [counsel for Bradbury] contended, require the appellants to provide and maintain electric wiring and arrange a supply of electricity.’

I think it is quite interesting for easements in general, because it does show the room for disagreement around positivity and negativity. We tend to treat them as clear and distinct, but are they always? That construction of a requirement ‘to suffer things to be done’ is so beautifully liminal in its positioning between active and passive. Not to mention its biblical resonances. The whole situation was also made a little vaguer by the fact that RL and its occupants had not been asked to pay a share of the electricity for some time, though it was maintained that they would have been willing to pay. This non-demand/non-payment circumstance allowed Bradbury to suggest that FF was being burdened with the cost of the electricity, as well as having to ‘host’ the machinery, cables etc. That, of course, would tend to make it look a little more like a requirement for positive input on the part of the servient owner, and so less like a legitimate easement. If we think about Regency Villas, it would tend to take us into the territory that so concerned Lord Carnwath.

It is worth mentioning a couple of other unsuccessful lines of argument which were run on behalf of Bradbury. First of all, there was an attempt to suggest that the easement was to receive water, and that did not actually require the pump, or the electricity, because water would naturally flow from the borehole onto RL anyway. This was ruled out partly because it was an attempt to introduce a line of argument by the back door on appeal, contrary to general rules on appeals which I won’t discuss here, but mostly because the easement was actually in terms of receiving water through the pump and pipes on FF. The fact that it might be possible to get it in some other way was neither here nor there.  Secondly, there was a disallowed argument about the alleged unsafe condition of the water which was coming up from the borehole: apparently it was contaminated by arsenic. This was ruled out of order, again, because it was being brought in in a procedurally inappropriate manner. An interesting potential issue though: what if something which starts off as clearly ‘accommodating’ the dominant tenement turns nasty and damaging? Does ‘accommodation’ cease then, bringing down the whole easement? Not according to  Zacaroli J: even if this had been shown, he did not think that the easement ‘fell away’. It was not necessary to get into this in great detail (sadly for Land Law fans!) but he suggested, almost in passing, that it would be particularly unlikely to change our view of whether the easement ‘accommodated’ in these circumstances:

‘37. …I do not need to decide this point, but I doubt that this requirement is intended to impose a further qualitative or quantitative requirement that the right granted in the particular circumstances is one which does in fact provide a benefit. Moreover, if (which is not disputed) there was a benefit to Rashwood Lodge when the water easement was granted in 1982, it is difficult to see why, assuming there are now unacceptable levels of arsenic in the water – the validly granted easement will have for that reason fallen away, particularly if the problem with arsenic in the water is temporary or can be got around.’

Anyway, Bradbury was found to have been in the wrong, and to have interfered with an easement which did bind FF and its owners. And, just in case anyone was still fretting about positivity and negativity, and the fact that the outcome would be likely to be that Bradbury would have to take positive action, Zacaroli reassured us that:

  1. Although an easement does not impose positive obligations on the servient landowner, if the owner of the servient land is found to have wrongly interfered with a negative easement, it may be open to the Court to require it to take some positive action to undo that which it did via its wrongful interference.’


So there we are: positively crystal clear, and without a trace of arsenic; a case about boreholes which is not wholly boring.





[i] First instance: [2020] EWHC 3906 (Ch) DJ Shorthose.

[ii] True: ‘14. Any ancillary right must itself, however, be capable of subsisting as an easement: William Old International Limited v Arya [2009] EWHC 599 (Ch), per HHJ Pelling QC at §31.’

Image – general suggestion of electrical power: Photo by Frames For Your Heart on Unsplash