A lease for an uncertain term granted to an individual is a lease for life

A lease for an uncertain term (or a periodic tenancy where the right to serve notice to quit is subject to an indeterminate, invalid fetter) created a lease for life at common law. This was so whether or not the parties intended a lease for life. In England, a lease for life takes effect as a lease for 90 years (Law of Property Act 1925, s. 149(6)). Contractual effect (binding only on the parties) is to be given to a licence agreement that cannot take effect as a lease (because of uncertainty of term). This is so even if the parties thought that they were creating a lease. Similarly, contractual effect (binding only on the parties) can be given to an invalid, indeterminate fetter on the right to serve a notice to determine a periodic tenancy.

In Mexfield Housing Co-operative Ltd v Berrisford ([2011] UKSC 52) M entered into an occupancy agreement with B. B could determine it by serving a month’s notice. M could only terminate it in the event of B’s default or in the event of her ceasing to be a member of M. M purported to terminate it by serving one month’s notice. It argued that the agreement was an ineffective attempt to create a lease. It was ineffective, it was argued, because of the lack of certainty attached to the landlord’s right to determine the agreement. M argued that the result was that B occupied under a periodic tenancy that could be brought to an end by notice to quit.

The Supreme Court reluctantly accepted (and B conceded) that this was a lease for an uncertain term. When granted to an individual, however, common law deemed this to be a lease for life. This seems to have accorded with the parties’ intentions in this case but the result would be the same even if this were not the case. The Law of Property Act 1925, s.149(6) converted a lease for life into a lease for a term of ninety years subject to the parties’ rights to bring it to an end in certain events by notice to quit.

Even if this had not been the case, the agreement could have taken effect as a contractual licence even if the parties had intended to create a lease. Lord Neuberger left open the question as to whether it could have taken effect as a periodic tenancy (had this accorded with the parties’ intentions) with contractual effect being given (as between the contracting parties) to the restrictions on the right to serve a notice to quit found in the agreement between M and B ([69]).

The Supreme Court was highly critical of the certainty of term principle but did not overrule earlier authorities that laid it down as an essential element of a lease.

Michael Lower

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