The Hugh James Property Litigation team has successfully defended a case at the Court of Appeal, which has been described as “the most complex mines, minerals and manorial rights case to be litigated in decades”. It’s a case that has wide implications for landowners, estates managers and developers across England and Wales.
Having won on all aspects of the claim at first instance last year, and obtained a significant payment on account of legal fees, the Court of Appeal today dismissed every aspect of the Claimant’s appeal.
Lawyers at Hugh James, led by Rob Phillips and assisted by James Hastings were acting for Natural Resources Wales – a successor body to the Forestry Commission in Wales which has owned and operated the nation’s forests since it was established in the early part of the 20th Century.
The case centred on large areas of land in mid-Wales, which is used and managed by Natural Resources Wales for forestry purposes, on behalf of the Welsh Ministers of the Welsh Government – which owns the freehold titles. Over the years, mudstone quarried from the land has been used to create roads and tracks, as part of the forestry infrastructure work.
Despite having been the freehold owner of the land in question for the best part of 100 years, the Claimants argued that Natural Resources Wales only owned a thin layer of surface soil and that all outcrops and mudstone bedrock belonged to them – as the rights of the Lord of the Manor had been preserved into the modern era.
As such, the Claimants argued that the construction of roads, fences, gateposts, and any other protrusion below the thin surface soils was a trespass. They claimed substantial damages in respect of the stone used to create forest tracks and accessways as well as the stone interfered with during the construction of wind turbines and telecommunications masts.
The case was complex as the Claimant sought to rely on historic documents and legal principles in support of their claim. The litigation required in-depth consideration of principles of medieval conveyancing and the mechanisms by which freehold parcels were first constituted in the form we recognise them today.
The Court of Appeal’s decision is now a key modern authority on the approach to the construction of Inclosure Acts – the nineteenth-century legal mechanism which changed feudal landholding systems into modern freeholds. There is a certain irony to this. While this case was largely concerned with historic conveyancing, the COVID pandemic meant that this was one of the country’s first hybrid trials in the High Court, with some lawyers and witnesses participating in proceedings in person whilst others participated from remote locations around the UK via video conferencing and remote access bundle technology.
Partner and Head of the Hugh James Property Litigation team, Rob Phillips, said today:
“This case is a culmination of more than 5 years of hard work and determination by a dedicated team of Hugh James lawyers, barristers at Wilberforce Chambers and our clients. It is satisfying to see a thorough and robust judgement of the Court of Appeal upholding such a carefully reasoned first instance decision which together brings clarity to this complicated area of land law”.
Whilst at first glance some may wonder what relevance the concepts examined in this case may have to them, in fact large swaths of land in England and Wales are subject to purported minerals reservations. The topic will be of key importance to developers, particularly those in the renewable energy sector, who require the use of the stone strata of their land holdings to effectively achieve their developments.