Date01 December 2001
Published date01 December 2001

Xpress Print Pte Ltd v Monocrafts Pte Ltd & Anor

I Introduction

On 24 July 2000, the Court of Appeal rendered a landmark judgment in Xpress Print Pte Ltd v Monocrafts Pte Ltd & Anor1, which has changed considerably the legal regime relating to the rights and duties of adjoining property owners. Departing from English principles2 which have been established for more than a century and overturning several of its own previous decisions3, the Court of Appeal held that the right of support enjoyed by a dominant landowner was not limited to land in its natural state, but could be extended to buildings erected thereon, the right accruing at the time the building was constructed. Moving further than any other common law jurisdiction, the Court of Appeal imposed an absolute duty on a servient landowner not to take any steps which would result in interference with the neighbouring building’s right of support.

II Facts of Xpress Print Pte Ltd v Monocrafts Pte Ltd & Anor

The facts, which were agreed at the trial, were as follows. The Appellants, Xpress Print Pte Ltd (“Xpress Print”) and the First Respondents, Monocrafts Pte Ltd (“Monocrafts”) were owners of adjoining plots of land along Kallang Way. On Xpress Print’s land stood a commercial building which was completed in 1996. Early in 1997, Monocrafts decided to construct an industrial building of their own on their land. The Second Respondents, L&B Engineering (S) Pte Ltd (“L&B Engineering”) a firm of contractors, were employed as Main Contractors for the project. It was accepted that they were independent contractors. In February 1997, L&B Engineering erected a temporary retaining wall between the two plots of land to hold up the soil on Xpress Print’s plot. They then began excavating on Monocraft’s land to build a basement and lay the necessary foundations for the building. As a result of the excavation4, soil subsidence occurred on Xpress Print’s land which caused massive damage to its land and building.

Xpress Print commenced a suit against Monocrafts and L&B Engineering on the basis of negligence, wrongful interference of support and nuisance, for all loss and damage which they had incurred. Before the trial, L&B Engineering were wound up and Xpress Print obtained a default judgment against them for failing to comply with various ‘unless orders’ of the Registrar. The suit therefore proceeded at trial against Monocrafts only, and they were the only party who defended the appeal.

III The Judgment at First Instance

At the trial, Xpress Print submitted primarily on the basis of their claim under the right of support5. Applying the principles of Dalton v Angus6, which were affirmed by the Court of Appeal of the Straits Settlement in the case of Lee Quee Siew v Lim Hock Siew7, the learned trial judge Choo Han Teck JC dismissed Xpress Print’s claim. It is instructive to set out the ratio of the trial judge’s decision:

The main thrust of [Xpress Print’s] case lay in the claim based on the wrongful interference with the right of support. However, the law is abundantly clear on this point. The right of support extends only to what is naturally on the land. The only exception, which does not apply in this case, is based on the right equivalent to an easement, that is an acquired right of support by long usage and reliance. In this case, it is an undisputed fact that [Xpress Print’s] building was constructed only a year previously. The contrasting rights of adjacent landowners namely, the right to do as one pleases, on his own land is limited by the right against wrongful interference of support. [Xpress Print] have as much right to construct and maintain a building on their own land as [Monocrafts] have to excavate theirs. So long as the excavation is carried out without negligence on the part of [Monocrafts] whether directly or vicariously, and no wrongful act of nuisance was committed by them8, they cannot be held responsible for the damage to [Xpress Print’s] building only by reason of the expectation of a right of support … the law may be summed up in this robust pronouncement of Lord Penzance inDalton v AngusL.R. 2 C.P.D. 572 at 804:

It is the law I believe I may say without question, that at any time within 20 years after the house is built the owner of the adjacent soil may with perfect legality dig that soil away and allow his neighbours’ house, if supported by it, to fall in ruins to the ground.”

IV The Court of Appeal’s Decision

Xpress Print appealed from the trial judge’s decision to the Court of Appeal.

The appeal was allowed. The Court of Appeal rejected the principle in Dalton v Angus that the right of support only extended to what was naturally on the land and overturned the trial judge’s decision on that basis.9 The Court of Appeal held that a landowner who sought to develop his property owed his neighbour an absolute duty not to interfere with the right of support for his building, this right accruing from the moment the building was constructed.

In order to fully appreciate the impact of the Court of Appeal’s decision, a discussion of the Dalton v Angus principle and its treatment in other common law jurisdictions is necessary.

V The Right of Support and the Dalton v Angus Principle

The right of support refers to the right of the dominant land to the physical support provided by the lateral thrust of the servient land. As distinct from an easement, this right is a ‘natural’ right which arises automatically and is not subject to any grant. It is, as such, an incident of ownership which passes even in the absence of an express provision on transfer of the land10. Violation of this right of support gives rise to remedies under the law of torts.11

Dalton v Angus has entrenched the principle in England as well as other common law jurisdictions12 that although a landowner has a right of support for his land13, this natural right of support avails the land only in its original state unencumbered by buildings or other constructions14. Buildings and other constructions do not enjoy a right of support and this right has to be acquired, if at all, by easement.15

The facts of Dalton v Angus were briefly as follows. There were two adjoining buildings, built independently, but each on the extremity of its owner’s land and having lateral support from the soil on which the other rested. The Defendant landowner employed a contractor to excavate his land which led to a withdrawal of support in respect of the Plaintiffs’ land. This caused the Plaintiffs’ building standing on the land, which had been built 27 years before, to collapse. The Plaintiffs brought an action to recover damages for injury to the building. On appeal to the Court of Appeal and House of Lords, the primary issue for determination was “whether, right to lateral support from adjoining land can be acquired by twenty-seven years uninterrupted enjoyment for a building proved to have been newly erected at the commencement of that time16.

The House of Lords held that the Plaintiffs had acquired an easement of support for their building by virtue of the 27 years uninterrupted enjoyment and therefore had a cause of action against the owners of the adjoining house for the injury to their building.

In so deciding for the Plaintiffs, the House of Lords adopted the distinction drawn in Bonomi v Backhouse17 between ‘natural’ rights which the dominant landowner enjoyed in respect of the land and easement rights which he did not enjoy automatically but could acquire in respect of the building on his adjoining land. Lord Selborne said the following18:

In the natural state of land, one part of it receives support from another, upper from lower strata, and soil from adjacent soil. This support is natural, and is necessary, as long as the status quo of the land is maintained; and, therefore, if one parcel of land be conveyed, so as to be divided in point of title from another contiguous to it, or (as in the case of mines) below it, the status quo passes with the property in the land, not as an easement held by a distinct title, but as an incident to the land itself. …

Support to that which is artificially imposed upon the land cannot exist ex jure naturae because the thing supported does not itself so exist; it must in each particular case be acquired by grant, or by some means equivalent in law to grant, in order to make it a burden upon the neighbour’s land, which (naturally) would be free from it.”

The House of Lords further decided that easement rights in respect of buildings could be acquired by prescription if there was a period of 20 years uninterrupted enjoyment19. The easement rights were therefore based on a form of acquiescence or consent by the landowner which could be inferred “from the fact that the person against whom the right is claimed has for a length of time failed to interrupt or prevent an enjoyment by his neighbour which he might have interrupted had he so pleased.”20

The House of Lords recognised the corollary of the principle of acquiescence in respect of prescriptive easement rights, which was that the servient landowner must have the power to interrupt21 the dominant landowner’s enjoyment of support in order to prevent such a presumption of acquiescence giving rise to a prescriptive easement22. In this context, Lord Penzance stated his famous quote23 which was relied on by Choo JC at first instance:

But the matter is not res integra. It has been the subject of legal decisions, and those decisions leave it beyond doubt that such is not the law of England. On the contrary it is the law, I believe I may say without question, that at any time within 20 years after the house is built the owner of the adjacent soil may with perfect legality dig that soil away, and allow his neighbour’s house, if supported by it, to fall in ruins to the ground …24

VI Erosion of the Dalton v Angus Principle in other Common Law Jurisdictions.

Putting the issue in...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT