By its very nature Christmas is a time for overindulgence; going overboard with lights and decorations is easily done. Whilst lights are in keeping with the festive spirit, there is a danger they could be causing a nuisance to neighbours. If Christmas lights are too bright, neighbours may be within their rights to report a nuisance to the local authority or to lay a complaint with a Magistrates Court, which will then assess whether this could be classed as a statutory nuisance.
Similar procedures apply for nuisance caused by noise or smell, for example construction noise, loud music, dog barking or smoke from bonfires.
Section 79 of the Environmental Protection Act (the Act), states that “artificial light omitted from a premises so as to be prejudicial to health or nuisance, is a ‘statutory nuisance’”. Artificial light nuisance can be caused by security lights, sports facilities, laser shows, light art and decoration lighting, such as Christmas lights. The Act gives the local authority the ability to inspect any statutory nuisances and sets out the steps to be taken if a nuisance is established.
The local authority can take action if the tree lights/decorations:
- unreasonably and substantially interfere with the use or enjoyment of a home or other premises; or
- injure health or are likely to injure health.
When assessing the extent to which Christmas lights may be the cause of a nuisance, there are no set levels of acceptable light, but the local authority will consider a number of factors including interference with the use of a property, the adverse effect it may have on health, the length and frequency of the display, timings, whether it is in the town or country and also the likelihood it will affect the average person. Another factor to consider is the potential knock on effects related to spectators, for example, additional traffic contributing to increased noise, congestion and pollution.
If the local authority is satisfied that a statutory nuisance exists or is likely to occur or reoccur, it will serve an abatement notice on the individual responsible for the display, requiring the abatement of the nuisance or prohibiting or restricting its occurrence.
Individuals can also issue civil proceedings for a ‘private nuisance’ or can follow the statutory nuisance procedure by making an application to the local Magistrate’s Court requesting the court to issue an abatement notice. The court would only be persuaded to issue an abatement notice if the factors identified above are established, and also if the court is satisfied that the person responsible can be identified, that the complainant has discussed the problem with them, that it has not been possible to reach agreement and that the problem is serious enough in all the other circumstances to warrant the issue of an abatement notice.
That said, an abatement notice will only be issued by the local authority or granted by the Magistrates’ Court or Civil Courts in exceptional circumstances where the local authority or court has a serious concern that a substantial nuisance is being caused. In extreme cases a complainant can apply on very short notice to the County Court or High Court for an injunction, which is a court order to restrain the nuisance, but, injunctions are costly and it will not be possible to recover all of those costs. Local authorities often have their actions for nuisance delayed by appeals or defences bought by the perpetrators.
Alternatively, where an individual wants to follow a statutory nuisance procedure themselves through the Magistrates’ Court, they first have to serve 21 days’ notice on the perpetrator requiring the nuisance to be abated, unlike a noise nuisance where only 3 days’ notice is required. In practice therefore it is unlikely the lights will be up long enough to follow the steps required to make out a nuisance. Given the fact that the Christmas festive season lasts for a short period of time and that Christmas lights are an established social convention, providing the lights are only on during reasonable, social hours, it is highly unlikely a local authority would issue an abatement notice or that a court would consider abatement appropriate.
To answer the question therefore it is highly unlikely much can be done to prevent nuisance from Christmas lights in practice, unless they go up in November and cause obvious and serious interference. After all, this sort of complaint is not really in keeping with a cheery Christmas spirit. If Christmas lights are causing a serious problem, it is better for a complainant to take action themselves in the Magistrates’ Court or Civil Courts than to ask the local council to issue an abatement notice.
On the other hand, there have been significant recent developments in the law of nuisance in another area, which is when Japanese Knotweed is growing on neighbouring land.
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