Easements: scope and extent

A practice note on the scope and extent of easements.



The following abbreviation is used in this note:

LPA 1925: Law of Property Act 1925.


Practice notes on easements

This practice note forms part of a series of practice notes considering the various aspects of the law governing easements.

The other practice notes in the series are:

In addition, the Practice note, Overriding interests and the Land Registration Act 2002 (www.practicallaw.com/8-107-4576) covers the rules governing overriding easements.


The parameters of an easement

The parameters of an easement, whether expressly granted or acquired by implied grant, or prescription, are defined by the following concepts:

  • The physical extent of the easement, for example, the width of a right of way.

  • The purpose and manner of use, for example, a right to take water but only for the use of a single private dwelling.

  • Any limitations on the use, for example, a right of way that may only be used during daylight hours.

Much of the law governing how the parameters of an easement are established or altered is governed by case law and the case law is sometimes contradictory. This practice note considers a number of cases that identify the concepts and highlight the inconsistencies.

Express grant

The actual scope of an easement that has been expressly granted by deed will depend on the construction of the grant. A court will construe the language of the deed in the light of the circumstances and the intention of the parties at the time of the grant.

When negotiating the deed, the parties should consider carefully how they intend the easement to be exercised, and make sure that any limitations are clearly stated in the drafting. A failure to properly define the limitations placed on an easement can lead to disputes. This problem was considered in the leading case of Risegold Ltd v Escala Ltd [2008] EWCA Civ 1180 (see Legal update, Whether a right of access for "rebuilding or renewal" permits access for development (Court of Appeal) (www.practicallaw.com/2-383-9349)).

Risegold dealt with a right of access to adjoining retained land "for the purpose of carrying out any maintenance, repair, rebuilding or renewal to the Property".

At first instance, the High Court concluded that the right of way did not extend to access for the purpose of redeveloping the property by replacing the existing building on the property with a completely different one.

The Court of Appeal unanimously overturned the High Court's decision, making three general points:

  • The wording used in the deed of grant of the easement must be construed in the context of an easement. Reference to the construction of the same words in, for example, a planning law context was unhelpful.

  • It is necessary to look at the likely intention of the parties at the time of the grant of the easement.

  • Express limitations in the wording of the grant may not necessarily mean the easement is narrow in scope. The drafting might include safeguards for the servient owner because the rights being granted are wide ranging.

The Court of Appeal held that the parties intended rebuilding to include more than the reconstruction of the existing building, and noted that the order of the easement's specified purposes was significant as they had an intentional "crescendo effect". The right of access was granted for the purposes of "maintenance, repair, rebuilding or renewal". The word order signified renewal was something more than rebuilding.

However, in Alford v Hannaford and another [2011] EWCA Civ 1099, the Court of Appeal held that a right of way granted in a transfer to pass and repass "at all times and for all purposes with or without vehicles" over and along a track did not extend to a right to drive animals over and along the track . The transferor had reserved to itself and successors in title a similar right which also extended to the passage of animals (see Legal update, Right of way on foot and with vehicles did not include a right to drive animals (www.practicallaw.com/0-509-2400)).

For more information on the creation of easements by express grant, see Practice note, Easements: creation: Express grant by deed (www.practicallaw.com/1-385-9229).

Implied grant and prescription

Where an easement arises by implied grant or prescription, the following will need to be considered to establish the parameters of the easement that is being claimed:

  • The actual manner in which the easement has been used.

  • The actual extent of the use of the right.

  • The character of the dominant land before the implied grant, or during the period of prescription.

For more information on the creation of easements by implied grant and prescription, see Practice note, Easements: creation: Implied grant (www.practicallaw.com/1-385-9229) and Practice note, Easements: creation: Prescription (www.practicallaw.com/1-385-9229).


Excessive user

It is an established principle that the use of the easement must not exceed that which was granted or acquired. Broadly, the use of an easement can be considered in three different, but overlapping, ways:

  • The nature of the use.

  • The purpose of the use.

  • The amount of the use.

These three aspects are frequently looked at in the light of the character and identity of the dominant land. Excessive use is usually considered in the context of a servient owner who acknowledges that an easement exists but is objecting to the way in which it is now being used, probably as a result of changes to the dominant land over a period of time. However, it should be noted that the servient owner cannot prevent a person from lawfully exercising an easement because another person is exercising a similar easement in an excessive and unlawful manner. See

Legal update, Can lawful use of an easement by one dominant owner be prevented because of excessive use by another dominant owner? (www.practicallaw.com/6-517-0683).

Conflicting case law on excessive user

Unfortunately, the case law on what amounts to excessive user has been somewhat contradictory. Many of the cases are still good law.

To illustrate the discrepancies that have arisen, consider the two following cases:

  • In Giles v County Building Constructors (1971) 22 P & CR 978, two houses on the dominant land were served by a right of way. The owner intended to demolish the houses and build a three-storey block of six flats, a bungalow and seven garages. The court, perhaps surprisingly, held that this development did not involve a change in the character or identity of the dominant land and an excessive use of the right of way was not established.

  • In McAdams Homes Ltd v Robinson [2004] EWCA Civ 214, the issue was whether an implied easement could be used for the benefit of the two houses erected in place of a bakery. The Court of Appeal held that it could not. In this case, the redevelopment of the bakery and its change to residential use was held to be a radical change and, on the evidence, there would have been a substantial increase in the use of the easement.

    Neuberger J commented that where a radical change in the use of the dominant land occurred after the easement had been established, a prescriptive right of way could only continue to be used if the change would not result in the use being "greater in quantum or different in character".

McAdams Homes case considered

In the leading case of McAdams Homes the Court of Appeal had the opportunity to consider, and try to reconcile, some of the conflicting case law.

The Court of Appeal issued guidelines on the extent to which an implied easement can continue to be used where the use of the dominant land has changed and/or additional buildings are constructed.

Two questions have to be answered:

  1. Does the development of the dominant land represent a radical change in its character or a change in its identity, as opposed to a mere change or intensification in its use?

  2. Will the use of the dominant land, as redeveloped, result in a substantial increase or alteration in the burden on the servient land?

Where the answer to both questions is "yes", the dominant owner's right to enjoy the easement will end, or at least be suspended for so long as the radical change of character and substantial increase in burden are maintained.

For more information on the McAdams Homes case, see Legal update, Implied easement - increase in burden on servient land (www.practicallaw.com/2-107-2226).

For more information on excessive use resulting in the termination or suspension of the easement, see Practice note, Easements: termination: Excessive use (www.practicallaw.com/7-385-9231).

Very shortly after McAdams Homes, the Court of Appeal again had to consider an extension of the use of an easement. In Hotchkin v McDonald [2004] EWCA Civ 519, a right of way was expressly linked to the lawful use of the dominant land and that use was governed by certain restrictive covenants.

The Court of Appeal had to consider the possibility that the restrictive covenants could be modified under section 84 of the LPA 1925. For more information on the modification of restrictive covenants, see Practice note, Restrictive covenants: Lands Tribunal (www.practicallaw.com/3-107-4475).

Despite the attempt in McAdams Homes to establish a general test to establish excessive use, the Court of Appeal held that the possibility of modification was relevant when considering the circumstances that existed at the time of the grant. One of the circumstances existing at the date of imposition of the restrictive covenant was that it may not be legally possible to fix the use of a property forever. There was always the possibility that the restrictive covenant could be modified under section 84 of the LPA 1925. The Court of Appeal decided that, in these circumstances, a right of way could continue to be used in connection with the lawful use as modified. This would presumably be the case even if the modified use would otherwise have satisfied the tests in McAdams Homes. For more information, see Legal update, Effect of modification of a restrictive covenant on a dependent right of way (www.practicallaw.com/0-107-2524).


Ancillary use

The physical extent of the dominant land also affects the parameters of an easement. For example, a right of way granted for access to the dominant land, cannot also be used in substance for access to land adjoining or neighbouring the dominant land (the additional land) (Harris v Flower (1905) 74 LJ 127). However, a doctrine of ancillary use has emerged through a stream of cases, some of which are difficult to reconcile with each other. This means that, in certain circumstances, an easement may be used in connection with land that is not the dominant land.

Ancillary use and the scope of easements have been considered in the following cases:


Ancillary rights

The grant of an easement will include ancillary rights that are both:

Reasonably necessary

The grant of an easement will impliedly include those ancillary rights that are reasonably necessary for its use and enjoyment (Pwllbach Colliery v Woodman [1915] AC 634).

For example:

An ancillary right must be capable of being an easement in its own right

Easements are essentially negative in character in the way they relate to the servient land and they only impose or imply positive obligations on servient owners in very limited circumstances. The servient owner's obligation is to refrain from doing anything that impedes enjoyment of the easement by the dominant owner.

Any right ancillary to an easement has itself to be capable of being an easement (William Old International Ltd v Arya [2009] EWHC 599 (Ch)).

In William Old, the High Court held that a developer's right to lay service media across neighbouring land did not positively oblige the owners of the neighbouring land to enter into a deed of grant with a statutory undertaker. For more information, see Legal update, Easements and non-derogation from grant (www.practicallaw.com/2-386-0430).

Express grant of ancillary rights

Although ancillary rights are usually implied by necessity (see Reasonably necessary) ancillary rights will sometimes be expressed in the grant itself. Where this is the case, the extent of the ancillary rights is a matter of construction in the context of the main rights granted. A court will construe the language of the deed in the light of the surrounding circumstances and evidence of the intention of the parties at the time of grant.

In Martin v Childs [2002] EWCA Civ 283, an easement to run services through conduits on the servient land had ancillary rights to enter to "install, repair and maintain" the conduits.

The Court of Appeal held that the meaning of the word install, had to be looked at in the context of the conduits that existed at the time of the grant and the installation of a new water pipe for an improved supply was not covered. For more information, see Legal update, Construction of rights ancillary to an easement (www.practicallaw.com/6-101-6827).

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