Removing internal staircase: infringement of right of way: encumbrance?

In Ho Ching Group Ltd v Tsang Pui Lin ([2013] HKEC 780, CFI) S agreed to sell the property (a ground floor shop) to P. There had been an internal staircase leading from the shop to the cockloft above (in separate ownership) and the owner of the cockloft had a right of way to use the staircase to get to the cockloft. The staircase had been removed and S acknowledged that this amounted to an infringement of the easement. The internal staircase had been replaced by an external staircase before S bought the property in 1998 and there had been no complaint by the owner of the cockloft. On the other hand, when approached by P, the owner of the cockloft refused to renounce its right to use the internal staircase. The question was whether the infringement of the easement amounted to an encumbrance on title.

The court held that it was not an encumbrance. J Poon J. stated the test thus:

‘In considering if a risk of litigation may constitute an encumbrance, the court will ask : are the facts and circumstances of the case so compelling to the mind of the court that the court concludes beyond reasonable doubt that the purchaser will not be at risk of a successful assertion against him of the encumbrance.’ ([12]).

Here, there had been no complaint by the owner of the cockloft. There had been no threat of action concerning the removal of the staircase by other owners in the building or the Government. It seemed clear that the owner of the cockloft had abandoned the right of way. The risk of litigation was fanciful ([13]).

The sale and purchase agreement contained a clause requiring P to accept the situation as regards the staircase but the presence of this clause was not a factor in the judgment.

Michael Lower

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