Crofting Law Group Conference 2017 – Reflections of an Aberdeen law student delegate

This blog post is by Simon Boendermaker, a recent LLB (Hons) graduate of the University of Aberdeen. Comments from Brian Inkster, Hon. Secretary of the Crofting Law Group, and Malcolm Combe follow.

Recently I had the opportunity to attend the Crofting Law Group Annual Conference, this year held in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, thanks to the generosity of the Group providing free student tickets and subsidised travel and accommodation.

As my Honours courses at the School of Law included both the Rural Law and Law of Leases courses (co-ordinated by Malcolm Combe and Douglas Bain respectively), I did not want to miss the opportunity to take part in an event which appealed to my interests. Alongside this, the programme for the conference featured an afternoon of events dedicated to common grazings, which had been the subject of considerable controversy in crofting communities in the previous twelve months. The opportunity to see vigorous debate between the newly elected crofting commissioners and representatives of the Upper Coll and Mangersta grazings committees, who had been sorely affected by the actions of their predecessors, made for a captivating agenda.

The conference took place in the picturesque surroundings of Lews Castle, the ideal setting to soak in my first visit to the Hebrides. However, there was little time to admire the scenery as a packed schedule of events began with a warm welcome from Iain Maciver of the Stornoway Trust (the community landowner of property in and around Stornoway), followed by a brief introduction to the day’s events from Duncan MacPhee, vice chairman of the Crofting Law Group.

As the programme of the conference would focus on crofting law reform, Fergus Ewing, the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity, gave a brief video outline of the stance of the Scottish Government on current legislation. Ewing highlighted that the Scottish Government agreed with the views of crofters that the law was in need of reform, expressing sympathy with the view that legislation had become overly complex for the average crofter. He also revealed that the Government was engaging with crofters over the direction that reform would take, with one approach being to consolidate legislation into a simpler Act or alternatively to adopt a clean sheet approach and developing a completely new legislative framework. However, his comments were tempered by his acknowledgement that the government currently has several “legislative priorities” which meant that crofting would be balanced alongside several competing interests.

The clean sheet approach which was mentioned by Fergus Ewing was rejected by Patrick Krause and Russell Smith, chief executive and chair of the Scottish Crofting Federation. Both noted that legislative reform was low on the list of priorities of the average crofter and that they were generally concerned with areas of practical concern, such as decrofting (that being the term used for taking land out of crofting regulation) and assignation (transfer). Smith noted that a clean sheet approach would risk “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

Much discussion followed the next item on the agenda, when Duncan MacPhee revealed he had successfully arranged a standard security (the Scots law term for a mortgage) over an entire croft without the need to decroft the house and restrict the scope of the security to the decrofted land alone.

Bill Barron of the Crofting Commission discussed “a year like no other” for the Commission, stating that the previous board of the Commission had witnessed deep personal splits, which had led to it failing to act as a corporate body. Barron said he was keen to learn from the mistakes of the previous year, where members of the Commission had made individual regulatory decisions which had resulted in the breakdown of trust between individual crofters and the Commission. With regard to crofting law reform, Barron insisted that the Commission would work with the Government to ensure that any new legislation would support opportunity for new entrants, an area which urgently required examination to secure the future of the sector. Finally, he expressed a hope that, with time, the Commission would be trusted to work for crofters once again.

After lunch, where I was able to speak further with Barron about his plans for the future of the Commission after the previous twelve months, Brian Inkster gave a presentation on the controversy surrounding the Commission. A complete chronology of that could take up several blog posts: Inkster’s Crofting Law Blog provides exactly that, so those interested in further reading on that topic are directed there.

The final portion of the day gave crofters a chance to discuss the current situation surrounding common grazings. Calum Maclean from Upper Coll gave a passionate account of the previous twelve months from the perspective of the grazings committee on Upper Coll. He could not understand how Barron and the new Crofting Commission could be expected to win back the trust of ordinary crofters when they had done little to actively address the effects of the decisions of the previous Commissioners in 2016. However, he was able to finish by stating that ordinary crofters did not want to abandon the current framework but that serious work would be required to secure the future of the sector.

Crofting Law Group Discussion
A discussion during the conference.

The lively debate provoked by the afternoon’s discussions continued well into the evening, when I spoke to several crofters who had attended the conference over dinner and gained some invaluable insights from these conversations. A desire for reform was evident and it is clear that stakeholders will need to undertake serious engagement to secure the bright new future that crofting is desperately in need of.

After writing my dissertation on agricultural holdings, I was able to draw a number of parallels throughout the day between the situation of crofters and issues faced in the agricultural holdings sector, where secure tenants also benefit from a parcel of rights (some which are particularly strong, perhaps even stronger than the rights of the landowner). All of this has ongoing implications for the wider rural sector. For my part, the conference and indeed the discussions over dinner brought to life some of the issues that had been discussed in my law degree. Thanks again to the Crofting Law Group for providing me with the opportunity to attend this year’s conference. I would not hesitate to recommend future conferences to other interested students.

Comment from Brian Inkster

We have been running the assisted places scheme to our conferences for law students at the Universities of Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Strathclyde for a few years now. It has been very well received by the Universities. It gives their students an opportunity to find out more about crofting law, a subject seldom touched upon at university. It is hoped that this exposure to crofting law may encourage those students to become tomorrow’s crofting lawyers. The Crofting Law Group will continue the assisted places scheme for next year’s conference which will be held in Edinburgh.

Comment from Malcolm Combe

The University of Aberdeen is very grateful to the Crofting Law Group for the support it gives to students from across Scotland. Whilst some courses at the Scottish universities touch on crofting matters, even with the best will in the world there is no way we could replicate a programme of events akin to the Crofting Law Group Conference for students to benefit from. We look forward to working with the Crofting Law Group in future, and if any other conferencing organisations would be interested in offering a similar student support scheme  we at the School of Law would be delighted to hear from you.

Crofting Students
From left to right: Brian Inkster (Secretary CLG), George MacDonald (Committee member CLG), Maureen Duffy (University of Strathclyde), Duncan MacPhee (Vice Chair CLG), Andrew Agnew (Dundee University), Fraser McDonald (Edinburgh University), Simon Boendermaker (University of Aberdeen), Gemma Thomson (University of Glasgow), Iain Maciver (Committee member CLG).

 

The Fifth Element: Exclusive Possession in the Scottish Law of Leases

This blog post is by Mitchell Skilling, a 2016 LLB (Hons) graduate. It is based on the presentation he gave at the launch of the seventh volume of the Aberdeen Student Law Review, itself based on an article that he wrote for that volume.

At a common law level, the Scottish contract of lease is made up of four elements:

  1. parties acting as landlord and tenant;
  2. a property to be leased;
  3. payment of rent; and
  4. a period over which the contract has effect, which in Scots could be described as a definite ish (or end date).

Combined, these four requirements afford each party a personal contractual right enforceable against the other. A contract lacking one or more of these requirements is instead likely to be a contract of licence. However, there is a fifth element that lurks outside of this four-element paradigm: exclusive possession of the leased subjects by the tenant.

Under the Leases Act 1449, a tenant entering into possession of their leased subjects will, provided that the four elements are present, gain a real right enforceable against their landlord’s singular successor. This cannot be achieved with a licence agreement, which will only ever afford a personal right. Possession here has been clarified to mean exclusive possession (Millar v McRobbie 1949 SC 1, 8). Similarly, the various Housing Acts in the social and private rented sectors as well as the Agricultural Holdings Acts have used exclusive possession as a mechanism for obtaining security of tenure, a powerful right that protects the tenant against eviction without a legal ground, even past the end date of their lease.

From this, it would appear that exclusive possession plays no role in the construction of a common law lease, and that it is rather used only to obtain additional rights once that lease has been established. However, there appears to be a growing school of thought that it is an essential requirement on par with the other four. This was the opinion of Sheriff Gordon in the case of Conway v Glasgow City Council (1999 Hous. LR 20), which related to accommodation in a hostel for homeless people.

In that case, Sheriff Gordon stated that the law had ‘come increasingly to talk of exclusive possession as a necessary condition of a lease.’ To support this proposition, he cited the earlier case of Commercial Components (Int) Ltd v Young (1993 SLT (Sh Ct) 15). That case was an appeal to a Sheriff Principal in which it was said that exclusive possession was ‘one of the badges of a lease.’ In addition, Sheriff Gordon was persuaded by the defender’s arguments relating to the case Brador Properties Ltd v British Telecom Plc (1992 SC 12), which came before the Inner House of the Court of Session. The pursuer in the Conway case had tried to use Brador as authority for exclusive possession not being a feature of a lease, but Sheriff Gordon felt that it was in fact consistent with exclusive possession being a requirement of a lease as it was concerned with the question of what needed to be exclusively possessed.

Whilst Conway proceeded to appeal, it was ultimately decided on the basis of another, more successful, argument made by the pursuer, based on contractual rights unrelated to a tenancy. This meant that no further comments were made about Sheriff Gordon’s opinion on leases. This is a pity, as it is clear that these comments are not wholly consistent with the most likely readings of those two cases.

In the case of Brador, the idea that this case is consistent with exclusive possession as an element of a common law lease is at odds with its treatment of Street v Mountford ([1985] 1 AC 809), a case that is authority for this requirement in England and Wales. The Inner House stated that Street was of no assistance in this case, which suggests that their comments on sufficient possession instead related to an unspoken degree of possession that would rule out a lesser agreement.

Meanwhile, the reading of the term ‘badge of a lease’ from Commercial Components seems stretched in its interpretation. The word ‘badge’ does not suggest an essential element so much as an obvious, but not definitive, outward sign that something is the case, akin to a learner driver plate affixed to a car. Whilst it suggests a highly likely conclusion, it is not an absolute guarantee, and to treat it as such seems to go too far.

Later case law developments also seem to count against Sheriff Gordon’s interpretation of a lease. Denovan v Blue Triangle (Glasgow) Housing Association (1999 Hous LR 97), another hostel case decided later in the same year as Conway, did not use exclusive possession as a requirement of a lease, instead only bringing it in as something to be considered with legislation that first required a tenancy to be established. In the 2005 case of South Lanarkshire Council v Taylor ([2005] CSIH 6), it was held that a lease existed even with a contractual clause forcing the tenant to vacate their property at any time within a short notice period.

A final nail in the coffin for Conway came in the Land Court case of Cameron v Alexander. The landlord’s arguments in this case were strongly based on Sheriff Gordon’s opinion, however the court did not find them a persuasive authority. Instead, it stated that exclusive possession was an ‘important pointer’ in determining the nature of an indeterminate agreement, which seems more consistent with the ‘badge of a lease’ comment from Commercial Components.

Despite these comments, it may still be possible that there is a valid argument for including exclusive possession among the cardinal elements of a lease.

One such argument relates to legal certainty: that is, with a view to clarifying the distinction between leases and licences. Historically, the licence agreement has been rarely used in Scotland compared with its application south of the border, but in recent times the term has appeared more frequently in litigation. As such, a definitive difference between the two may be necessary in order to prevent future disputes. That being said, the introduction of a possessory requirement is not the only way to accomplish this. There is currently no statutory definition of a licence agreement, and while several texts have defined the term, no single one has become definitive. The creation of such a definition, rather than a modification of another type of contract, may serve as a better basis for distinguishing between the two.

Another argument for exclusive possession is that many types of lease now afford access to security of tenure, a right arguably greater than a personal right for its ability to keep a tenant in their property even past their ish date (assuming the landlord has no legal ground on which to evict them, such as non-payment of rent). Access to this right shifts the balance of power firmly in favour of the tenant, so perhaps the balance should be corrected by making those rights harder to access.

That being said, it has been observed by commentators such as Stalker that the various residential tenancy acts seem to have been designed to extend security of tenure to as many people as possible, so the introduction of a possessory requirement may go against the intentions of Parliament. Additionally, the introduction of a fifth element to benefit only one type of lease ignores the diversity present in the Scottish lease, which encompasses a broad variety of rights, some of which are not dependent on possession in order to be exercised.

Exclusive possession, then, is probably not the best means by which to distinguish leases from licences. What is required is a mode of distinction that respects the unique character of the Scottish lease and recognises the exact nature of the difference between the rights conferred by a lease and a licence.

The full article may be found in Volume 7 of the Aberdeen Student Law Review , which is available for free online viewing.