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Vardags Family Law Essay competition 2023/24 | Lavanya Dev-Kauffmann

Lavanya Dev-Kauffmann - Durham University

Once designated as a fixture, an item loses its character as personality and, in effect, is regarded as being subsumed within the land itself and annexed to it…. [T]his apparently simple distinction between fixture and chattel has, nonetheless, given rise to hundreds of years of confused and, at times, unhelpful case law, has vexed some of the greatest legal minds and, consequently, has failed to result in a clear or coherent legal test.

C Bevan, The Law of Fixtures and Chattels: Recalibration, Rationalisation and Reform (2022) 42 Legal Studies 358.

Introduction

The distinction between fixtures and chattels is defined by the legal framework, assessing whether movable personal property, upon placement on land, has achieved a level of attachment that deems it an integral part of the land. This distinction has great significance in the law of property, especially when properties are transferred as it determines which items on the land belong to who. The issue lies within the discourse generated from a history of contradictory case law trying to distinguish objects into one category or the other. Although the two-part test may appear straightforward, numerous judgments appear to depend on common sense rather than rigorous frameworks, leading to a confusing and unhelpful body of case law. Therefore, I propose the development of a singular test to eliminate this ambiguity and restore land law to the beautiful and comprehensive area of law that it should be.

Section 1: Why is this distinction important?

Firstly, the fixture versus chattel distinction is imperative for deciding true ownership over items and how things may be passed with property. Chattels are personal property, such as assets that can be moved whereas fixtures are usually installed or fixed to the property, and are therefore part of the land. I say usually, but it is also where the confusion arises and tends to depend on a case-by-case basis. The principle is often expressed in the Latin maxim "quicquid plantatur solo, solo cedit" (whatever is attached to the land becomes part of it), which illustrates the idea of annexation being the deciding factor to what comes with the land. Thus, when identified as a fixture, an item loses its character and is effectively seen as integrated into the land and annexed to it.

The distinction is significant for landowners who own all fixtures whereas chattels may belong to any individual irregardless of who owns the land. Thus, for example, when property is sold, under section 62 of the Law of Property Act 1925 any fixture on the land passes automatically. As a buyer, one would prefer that items be fixtures as any chattel may remain under the ownership of the seller and will not transfer with the property. This distinction is also crucial in mortgage transactions where banks or lenders, seeking to enhance the value of their security as they may argue that certain items qualify as fixtures. Additionally, the differentiation becomes significant when a lease concludes, potentially leading to disagreements between landlords and tenants regarding ownership of specific items on the property. Accordingly, the distinction itself is pretty simple, as the statement correctly highlights, but it is the framework to decide items where the confusion begins.

Consequently, the starting point was said by Blackburn J in Holland v Hodgson was [i]t is a question which must depend on the circumstances of each case, and mainly on two circumstances … the degree of annexation and the object of the annexation. This makes up the two part test for deciding every item on a piece of property. The first strand focuses on the degree or extent of the items attachment to the land, focusing on how it was annexed, attached, or affixed. Together with the second test, which investigates the purpose and intention behind the items annexation. Hence, the general rule is still that there must be some form of annexation of an item to land for it to be a fixture. However, sole reliance on physical attachment is no longer the conclusive factor and can be overruled by consideration of the purpose of annexation and the intentions of the parties. This is where I begin to address the next part of the statement regarding how this has led to hundreds of years of confusion.

Section 2: The Issue of Vexed Legal Minds

For its lack of uniformity, the case law deriving from this two-part test still tends to operate on a case-by-case basis and hence, continues to cause confusion and concern legal minds for centuries. One contended issue has been the development of the first factor which dictates that any attached item is a fixture. The traditional approach considered attachment resting by its own weight chattels unless there was evidence of an intention to attach the item as a fixture. However, under the contemporary approach, the removal of the item must also be considered and this area has found great contention from case to case.

In Elitestone Ltd v Morris, it was argued a wooden bungalow did not form part of the land as it rested by its weight on concrete pillars and was not attached to the ground. However, the courts disagreed finding it to be part of the land as it goes without saying that such items are physically attached to the land. The courts also urged that it is as much a matter of common sense as precise analysis. to distinguish the type (Although I find this justification quite vague). Now if one compared this to what happened in H.E. Dibble Ltd v Moore whereby commercial greenhouses were found to be chattels as they had a history of being moved. Even though the courts had said something as big as a house was a part of the land, in Moore a greenhouse of equitable size was not? This is the contradiction accurately highlighted by the statement. While each justification makes sense in its own right, it becomes hard for practitioners to predict how a case will go if each citation is completely case-specific.

Even in the second strand of the test, there is clear overlap with the first strand and as noted by Scarman LJ in Berkley v Poulett, since it has become the predominant determinator of whether an item is a fixture or a chattel. The confusion in this bit is deciding if the item is attached to the land for its own better enjoyment or to permanently improve the land. A trend has been determining if the item was a part of a specific architectural design and hence a picture however, I find this quite subjective. In Re Whaley, tapestries and painted portraits were a part of the design and hence, fixtures. On the other hand in Tower Hamlets LBC v Bromley LBC, a Henry Moore artistic sculpture was not a fixture as it was not a part of an artistic or architectural design. The justifications for each ruling contradict and seem to be so delicately case-specific that it is no wonder the precedent is considered confusing. The case of Berkley illustrated this very well when Scarman LJ said that no annexation means not a fixture but then also said that if there was a high degree of physical annexation then it amounts to a chattel. He suggests a spectrum of annexation, with no objective limits which begs the question, how has this not been settled yet? Is this not a clear contradiction? How are lawyers meant to make cases on precedence when the authorities do not seem to line up. I find it hard to believe this is the standard of land law, an area so historically significant, but here we are.

Conclusion

In conclusion, while the designation of a fixture holds great significance, it is also an area of law with complicated and in my opinion often contradictory case law. Although some may view this as an inherent outcome of legislating on an intricate subject, I would caution that these challenges should not hinder efforts to formulate a single, comprehensive legal test. Such a test should avoid excessive exceptions and minute details to ensure practical utility. Instead, I would suggest a single framework of categories for which the courts can try and classify items. While this may be a rigid solution, it would clarify an area of land law that, in my opinion, needs it.

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Bibliography 

Books

Chris Bevan, Land Law (3rd edn, Oxford University Press 2022) 16-27

Gray and Gray Elements of Land Law (London: Butterworths, 3rd edn, 2000) at 45, 51.

Statute

Law of Property Act 1925 s. 62.

Cases

Holland v Hodgson [1872] LR 7 CP 328

Elitestone Ltd v Morris [1997] 1 WLR 687

Leigh v Taylor [1902] AC 157

H.E. Dibble v Moore [1970] 2 QB.

Berkley v Poulett [1977] 1 EGLR 86

Re Whaley [1908] 1 Ch 615

Tower Hamlets LBC v Bromley LBC [2015] EWHC 1954 (Ch)

Articles

C Bevan, The Law of Fixtures and Chattels: Recalibration, Rationalisation and Reform (2022) 42 Legal Studies 358.

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