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Until the Abbott be deposed: uncertain terms


Berrisford v Mexfield Housing Co-operative Ltd (Rev 1) [2011] UKSC 32

What happens to a lease for an uncertain term? Or a tenancy that ends on some specified event, whose date is not known and which may or may not happen? Can either the tenant or the landlord rely on the clauses in the tenancy agreement?

The Supreme Court simply and indeed elegantly gives us the answer in this case, the final part of the extraordinary saga of Ms Berrisford and the Mexfield housing Co-op, which saw Mexfield arguing in the Court of Appeal that all of the tenancies it had granted were invalid. (Our reports on the High Court and Court of Appeal).

Mexfield was and is a housing co-op, so could not grant assured or secure tenancies. It was brought into existence as part of a mortgage rescue scheme, buying back properties from mortgagees in trouble and letting the properties back to them. The tenants were all members of Mexfield. There has been some suggestion of dubious motives on the part of Mexfield in pursuing this case, as an individual had purchased all Mexfield’s mortgage debt and was allegedly exercising a degree of control. This was denied by Mexfield, who insisted the ‘committee of management’ were in control, but even if Mexfield were seeking the easy termination of the tenancies, the Supreme Court were clear that nothing unlawful had been done.

Ms Berrisford had fallen briefly into rent arrears, but the notice served was not under the relevant clause of the tenancy agreement (6(a) – see below) but rather a plain notice to quit. Mexfield had argued throughout that it was entitled to terminate Ms Berrisford’s tenancy by service of a bare notice to quit. This may indeed seem like a surprising stance for a housing co-op to take, given that all its tenant members would then face the same risk of notice regardless of fault.

At first instance, Mexfield’s application for summary judgment was rejected. The High Court reluctantly allowed the argument in Mexfield Housing Co-Operative Ltd v Berrisford [2009] EWHC 2392, as did the Court of Appeal in Berrisford v Mexfield Housing Co- Operative Ltd [2010] EWCA Civ 811. The Court of Appeal had held that the tenancy agreement was void for term uncertain and, construing what there actually was from the conduct of the parties, there was a monthly periodic tenancy terminable by notice to quit.

Thus to the Supreme Court, where Mark Wonnacott, instructed by Mary Ward Legal Centre, represented Ms Berrisford. Mexfield were represented by an array of counsel: Jonathan Gaunt QC, Kerry Bretherton and Laura Tweedy, instructed by Rickerbys LLP.

The relevant clauses of the tenancy agreement read as follows:

1. [Mexfield] shall let and [Ms Berrisford] shall take the [premises] from 13 December 1993 and thereafter from month to month until determined as provided in this Agreement.
[ …]
5. This Agreement shall be determinable by [Ms Berrisford] giving [Mexfield] one month’s notice in writing.
6. This Agreement may be brought to an end by [Mexfield] by the exercise of the right of re-entry specified in this clause but ONLY in the following circumstances:
a) If the rent reserved hereby or any part thereof shall at any time be in arrear and unpaid for 21 days …
b) If [Ms Berrisford] shall at any time fail or neglect to perform or observe any of the [terms of] this Agreement which are to be performed and observed by [her]
c) If [Ms Berrisford] shall cease to be a member of [Mexfield]
d) If a resolution is passed under … [Mexfield’s] Rules regarding a proposal to dissolve [Mexfield]
THEN in each case it shall be lawful for [Mexfield] to re-enter upon the premises and peaceably to hold and enjoy the premises thenceforth and so that the rights to occupy the premises shall absolutely end and determine as if this Agreement had not been made … .

We’ll end the suspense here. The Supreme Court unanimously found that while the tenancy agreement did constitute an uncertain term, it was rescued by s.149(6) Law of Property Act 1925 which turned it into a lease of 90 years, subject to determination on death of the tenant and clauses 5 and 6 of the agreement. They also found, although obiter, that even if that were not so, Ms Berrisford could rely on the terms of the agreement in contract, if not as a tenancy.

Mr Wonnacott for Ms B’s main argument went as follows:

(i) The Agreement purports to be the grant to Ms Berrisford of a tenancy for a term determinable by her on one month’s notice under clause 5, or by Mexfield through exercising its rights under clause 6, and in no other way;
(ii) Subject to the points in sub-paragraphs (iii) and (iv), such an arrangement cannot constitute a valid tenancy in law;
(iii) Before 1926, the arrangement would have been a term for the life of the tenant, subject to the determination rights under clauses 5 and 6 before her death;
(iv) By virtue of section 149(6) of the Law of Property Act 1925 (“the 1925 Act”), such a term is now a tenancy for 90 years, subject to the landlord’s right to determine on the tenant’s death, and to the rights under clauses 5 and 6;
(v) As Ms Berrisford has not served notice under clause 5, and Mexfield is not relying on clause 6, Mexfield is not entitled to possession, as the 90-year tenancy created by the Agreement still subsists.

Lord Neuberger’s lead judgment takes each point in turn. We’ll focus on Lord Neuberger’s judgment as the others, to be honest, are largely commentary on it.

1. Can the landlord determine the tenancy on one month’s notice

Mexfield took a new line of argument in the Supreme Court, not raised below. The tenancy agreement stated that it was a ‘tenancy from month to month’. This was a monthly periodic tenancy. Pretty much by definition, a monthly periodic is determinable by one month’s notice by either party. Thus there was an implied term in the agreement that provided for determination on one month’s notice.

Lord Neuberger was not convinced. A monthly periodic tenancy can indeed by determined on one month’s notice, in the absence of anything to the contrary, but it was also open to the parties to agree a bar for a period on the landlord’s service of notice, or a longer, or shorter, period of notice to that implied. In the present agreement it was clear that the parties intended the agreement should only be determinable under clause 5 or clause 6. The ‘implied right’ of determination on a month’s notice did not fall within the natural meaning of the phrase ‘determined as provided in this agreement’, it would make clause 5 redundant and was not consistent with the words ‘but ONLY’ in clause 6. It also made redundant the right of forfeiture in clause 6. Given the circumstances of entering into the agreement, it seemed unlikely that such a tenuous security was intended.

So, if a monthly tenancy is automatically determinable on one month’s notice, this was not a monthly tenancy.  (This suggestion by Mexfield was not accepted in any event, on which more below). The words ‘from month to month’ could easily be read as indicating that a notice by Ms B under clause 5 or by Mexfield under clause 6, the notice must take effect on the thirteenth of the month.

Whether or not the agreement gave rise to a monthly tenancy, the effect of clauses 1, 5 and 6 was that the tenancy could only be determined by Ms B under 5 or Mexfield under 6 and by no other way, save for a consensual surrender.

2. Is such an arrangement capable of being a tenancy as a matter of law?

Ms B accepted that the arrangement was not capable of being a tenancy.  This was supported by very old authority and the highest of modern authority. It appears to have been established for a very long time that an agreement for an uncertain term cannot be a tenancy in the sense of being a term of years. I cannot resist the temptation to quote a few paragraphs for reasons of pure and unfettered geekiness:

24. […] In Say v Smith (1563) Plowd 269, 272, Anthony Brown J said that “every contract sufficient to make a lease for years ought to have certainty in three limitations, viz in the commencement of the term, in the continuance of it, and in the end of it … and words in a lease, which don’t make this appear, are but babble.”

25. That is consistent with what was stated in Bracton’s De Legibus et Consuetudinibus Angliae, written in the mid-thirteenth century. It is there stated that a grant of land “until you have taken 40 pounds” would be a “free tenement” (which could not be created without certain strict formalities), rather than a term certain (which did not require such formalities), “because it cannot be known how long it may take for so many pounds to be raised from [the] land, because the term is uncertain and undetermined” – Bracton on the Laws and Customs of England (trans Professor E Thorne) (1977), vol 3, p 50 (f176b). This statement was referred to with approval by Sir Edward Coke in Co Litt 42a (1628), and much the same is stated in Brook’s New Cases (1554/5) pl 462. So too in The Bishop of Bath’s Case (1605) 6 Co Rep 34b, 35b, Coke stated that a letting expressed to last until a certain amount of money had been “levied of the issues and profits … is but a lease at will without livery” – i.e. without the formalities required for the establishment of a freehold interest.

26. Much more recently, in Lace v Chantler [1944] KB 368, the Court of Appeal held that a purported letting “for the duration [of the Second World War]” could not take effect as “a good tenancy for the duration of the war” as it was for an uncertain term, and that it was consequently ineffective. This decision was distinguished by a subsequent Court of Appeal in Ashburn Anstalt v Arnold [1989] Ch 1, where it was held that a right to occupy premises until the owner gave one quarter’s notice certifying he needed the premises for redevelopment created a tenancy binding on third parties.

27. Less than 20 years ago, the House of Lords approved and applied Lace [1944] KB 368, and disapproved and overruled Ashburn [1989] Ch 1. In Prudential Assurance Co Ltd v London Residuary Body [1992] 2 AC 386, land was sold in 1930 by the owner, Mr Nathan, to the London County Council, who immediately leased it back to him at a weekly rent until the land “is required by the council for the purposes of the widening of” the road. The House of Lords held that this arrangement was incapable of creating a tenancy, as it was for an uncertain, potentially perpetual, duration. Lord Templeman (with whom the other members of the House of Lords agreed, albeit with reluctance in most cases) said at [1992] 2 AC 386, 394F, that there had been “500 years of judicial acceptance of the requirement that a term must be certain applies to all leases and tenancy agreements”.

The same position appears to have been taken with regard to periodic tenancies containing a fetter on the right of either or both parties to serve notice to quit, following Doe d Warner v Browne (1807) 8 East 165. Although in both Breams Property Investment Co Ltd v Stroulger [1948] 2 KB 1, 6 and In re Midland Railway Co’s Agreement, Charles Clay & Sons Ltd v British Railways Board [1971] Ch 725, the Court of Appeal had upheld fetters on the landlord serving notice pending an event of uncertain date, the House of Lords in Prudential had overruled Midland Railway “on the basis that a fetter of uncertain duration on the service of a notice to quit in relation to a periodic tenancy was as objectionable to the concept of a tenancy as was the existence of an uncertain term.”

If this precedent is accepted, then the agreement could not take effect as a tenancy on its terms.

From a passage at para 34 that will have property lawyers quivering in an admixture of fear and excitement, it appears that the Supreme Court was considering overturning the rule on term uncertain on the basis that it had no practical justification, despite its long standing and the principle was not strong enough to be binding. Indeed, the common law accepted perpetually renewable leases as valid, being converted into 2000 year terms by s.145 Law of Property Act 1922.

However, the nuclear option was not taken. The Law of Property Act 1925 appeared to support the position of the earlier case law, stating at 1(1) that only two estates can exist in land, a fee simple or term of years (meaning either term certain or liable to determination by notice or re-entry). This is supported by s.149(6), to which we’ll return below.

The House of Lords had addressed the certainty point only 20 years ago and any changed may upset ‘long established titles’, particularly where the grant was to a company or corporation (not affected by s.149(6)). And in any event, it was not either party’s case that the tenancy agreement was valid according to its terms.

S.149(6) Law of Property Act 1925 effectively turns a tenancy for life into a 90 year term. A tenancy for life before 1926 was for an uncertain term and treated as a form of freehold.

3. Would a tenancy such as Ms B’s have been treated as a tenancy for life before 1926?

There is old authority for the proposition. Again, geekiness compels a quote:

39. […] In Bracton (op cit) vol 3, p 50 (f176b), it will be recalled that the grant of an uncertain term was held to give rise to a “free tenement”, provided that the formalities had been complied with. The nature of this free tenement would appear to be a tenancy for the life of the grantee. That is clear from what was said in Littleton on Tenures (1481/2) vol 2, section 382 namely:
“[I]f an abbot make a lease to a man, to have and to hold to him during the time that he is abbot … the lessee hath an estate for the term of his owne life: but this is on condition … that if the abbot resign, or be deposed, that then it shall be lawful for his successor to enter.”

40. In Co Litt vol 1, p 42a, it is similarly stated that if an estate is granted to a person until, inter alia, she marries, or so long as she pays £40 “or for any like incertaine term”, “the lessee hath in judgment of law an estate for life determinable if [the formalities of creation are satisfied]”. This passage was quoted and applied by North J in In re Carne’s Settled Estates [1899] 1 Ch 324, 329. The same point was made in Sheppard’s Touchstones on Common Assurances, where it is said that “uncertain leases made with … limitations … may be good leases for life determinable on these contingents, albeit they be no good leases for years” – 7th ed (1821), vol 2, p 275.

41. In Doe v Browne 8 East 165, 166-167, Lord Ellenborough CJ and Lawrence J, both of whom rejected the contention that an agreement which was to continue so long as the tenant paid the rent and did not harm the landlord’s business could be a valid term of years, said that it could be “an estate for life”, but that it failed to achieve this status because the necessary formalities had not been complied with. Such formalities have now largely been done away with, and they normally only require a written, signed document. As Lord Dyson’s reference to Joshua Williams’s 1920 textbook shows, the perceived legal position right up to the time of the 1925 property legislation was that terms of uncertain duration were converted into determinable terms for life.

So, if Ms B’s tenancy had been granted before 1926, it would have been treated as a tenancy for life. Mexfield argued that this could only be so if, on a fair reading, it was the intention of the parties, relying on the Court of Appeal decision in Zimbler v Abrahams [1903] 1 KB 577. However, Lord Neuberger holds that if that was what was decided in Zimbler, it was wrong in view of the quote from Littleton given above. Neither party in Zimbler had relied on that argument. In any event a true construction of the present agreement did show the intention that Ms B shoudl enjoy the property for life.

4. Is the agreement converted into a 90-year term by section 149(6)?

Section 149(6) provides:

“Any lease . . . at a rent . . . for life . . . or any contract therefor, made before or after the commencement of this Act, . . . shall take effect as a lease . . . or contract therefor, for a term of 90 years determinable after the death . . . of the original lessee . . . by at least one month’s notice in writing given to determine the same on one of the quarter days applicable to the tenancy…”

The section expressly provides for life leases entered into after the Act.

Mexfield argued that s.149(6) did not apply to a contract that was not expressly a lease for life, merely one that would have been treated as such under case law. This was rejected as it could not have been the legislature’s intention to simply terminate an agreements which before 1926 existed as valid determinable life estates.

Mexfield then argued that s.149(6) dealt with tenancies that automatically terminated on the death of the tenant. In the present agreement, 6(c) provided that the agreement may determine on death of the tenant, not that it did do so. This was rejected as the agreement would be treated as a tenancy for life not because of the specifics of clause 6(c) but by common law rule. The determination on death was by common law, not the agreement clause.

Lastly Mexfield argued that s.149(6) did not apply to tenancies determinable in circumstances other than death, e.g. on the grounds set out in clause 6. This was rejected. There was no reason in principle to accept it and impossible to see why the rule:

should be limited to cases where an event automatically determines the term, as opposed to cases where an event entitles the landlord to serve notice to determine the term. In each case, the term is uncertain. At least one of the reasons the common law treated uncertain terms as tenancies for lives was, as I see it, to save arrangements which would otherwise be invalidated for technical reasons, and I find it hard to accept that the modern law requires the court to adopt a less benevolent approach to saving contractual arrangements.

As for any inconsistency with Lace or Prudential, in neither case was the common law life tenancy argued. It would probably have harmed the Respondent’s case in Prudential to do so. As a result, some of the statements in Prudential might be ‘extravagantly wide’.

5. Is Ms Berrisford accordingly entitled to retain possession?

Ms B’s argument was accepted in full. The tenancy agreement could only be determined by clauses 5 and 6. It was therefore of uncertain time and could not take effect. By common law and s.149(6), it could take effect as a life tenancy, converted to a tenancy of 90 years by s.149(6), “determinable on the tenant’s death by one month’s notice from the landlord, and determinable in accordance with its terms, i.e. pursuant to clauses 5 and 6.”

A periodic tenancy with an invalid fetter on the landlord’s right to determine should be treated the same way as a tenancy for a fixed if indeterminate term. So even if Ms B’s agreement did create a monthly tenancy, it was of a kind that would be treated as a life tenancy under common law.

The Notice to Quit served by Mexfield was ineffective.

Ms Berrisford is still alive, and it is common ground that she has not served notice under clause 5 and that Mexfield is not relying on clause 6. In those circumstances, it follows that Ms Berrisford retains her tenancy of the premises and that Mexfield is not entitled to possession.

The alternative case in contract

While it was not necessary to find on these. Lord Neuberger went on to consider Ms B’s two alternative arguments, that i) if there as no effective tenancy she could still enforce the terms of the agreement as a contract, and ii) if there were a monthly periodic with an impermissible fetter on determination by the landlord, she was still entitled to enforce that fetter against Mexfield, if not any successor in title.

On the contract, Mexfield relied on Lace and Prudential. In both cases the alternative of contract had been raised and rejected on the basis that the intention of the agreement was to create a tenancy and nothing else. The treat the agreement as a contract would be to treat it as something other than the parties had intended.

Lord Neuberger finds that this argument can’t withstand principled analysis. If the agreement were frustrated from being a tenancy by an old and technical rule, this was no reason to say it could not take effect as contract.

The fact that the parties may have thought they were creating a tenancy is no reason for not holding that they have agreed a contractual licence any more than in Street v Mountford [1985] AC 809, the fact that the parties clearly intended to create a licence precluded the court from holding that they had, as a matter of law, created a tenancy.

Mexfield relied on Street to argue that as the agreement gave exclusive occupation, it was a tenancy, not a contractual licence, but the definition of a tenancy in Street also included a fixed or periodic term, wich would be lacking here.

If there were no tenancy under the terms of the agreement and no contractual licence, Ms B would have a periodic tenancy. This had been Mexfield’s argument in the Court of Appeal, that if the agreement failed to create a tenancy, then a tenancy should be inferred from the actions of the parties. Mexfield argued that have rise to a bare periodic tenancy, terminable by Notice to Quit.

Lord Neubeger considers that “Given that no question of statutory protection could arise, it seems to me far less likely that the parties would have intended a weekly tenancy determinable at any time on one month’s notice than a licence which could only be determined pursuant to clauses 5 and 6”.

On the basis that he had already found for Ms B on two grounds, he declined to consider the third point, which was MS B’s argument that she could rely on the agreement as a contract even if the result was a periodic tenancy inferred from conduct, without the fetter on determination by the landlord. This was the ground on which Mexfield had been successful in the Court of Appeal and also the point of Lord Wilson’s dissent in that Court. But it was not necessary to deal with this issue given the earlier findings.

Appeal allowed.

Of the other Judgments, Lord Hope suggests that it is time to remove the legislation preventing Fully Mutual Associations from granting protected or statutory tenancies, given that the presumed ‘happy state’ of the indivisibility of interest of landlord and tenant used to refuse any such amendment was clearly no longer the case.

Lord Walker notes the case of Bass Holdings Ltd v Lewis [1986] 2 EGLR 40, a reported decision on s.149(6) in which ‘determinable on death’ had been held to mean automatically, rather than by one month’s notice. He also notes the only other reported case on s.149(6), Skipton Building Society v Clayton (1993) 66 P & CR 223, which had very different facts, but did not clash with Lord Neuberger’s view of its meaning.

Lady Hale takes the view that it is indeed time for the rle against uncertainty of period to be done away with, while agreeing with Lord Neuberger on this case. “It seems to me obvious that the consequence of our having reached the conclusions which we have on the first issue is to make the reconsideration of the decision in Prudential, whether by this Court or by Parliament, a matter of some urgency.”

Lord Mance elaborates on the basis for rejecting Mexfield’s contention that, in the absence of an effective agreement, a periodic tenancy terminable on a month’s notice must be inferred. The certainty of term was lacking, such that there were not the requirements for a tenancy set out inf Street, so:

The basis for asserting that there was a contractual tenancy therefore falls away. But the contract was valid as such. There is no reason not to give it effect according to its terms. As a matter of legal categorisation, because it was not a tenancy, it can only involve a licence. Its terms precluded the giving by Mexfield of notice to terminate, except in circumstances falling within clause 6 of the Agreement.

To substitute a wholly different tenancy could hardly be to follow the intention of the parties.

Lord Clarke notes that Mexfield had abandoned its concession below that under the terms of the agreement it could not serve notice to quit other than as provided for in clause 6. But he wholly agrees with Lord Neuberger on what a reasonable person would consider the contract to have meant. He concurs on the s.149(6) point and is happy to do so as any other conclusion would be contrary to the agreement freely entered by the parties.

Lord Dyson also adds that it is unsatisfactory to have to adopt this chain of reasoning to achieve the just result. The radical solution of doing away with the uncertainty rule is attractive, not least as s.149(6) only applies to individual tenants not corporate entities.


First it has to be said that Mark Wonnacott, instructed by the Mary Ward Legal Centre, clearly played an absolute blinder in the Supreme Court, presenting a clean, clear and elegant solution.

But it is a result with consequences, not only for Ms B’s tenancy and the other Mexfield tenants, but for any Fully Mutual or Co-Op where the tenancy agreement is in similar terms, which I suspect would be quite a lot of them.

As a lease with a 90 term, it must be registered on the title with the Land Registry.

Being a 90 year lease, the section 11 Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 implied repairing obligations do not apply. The only repairing obligations on the landlord will be those specified in the ‘tenancy’ agreement.

And then there is the matter of termination of the tenancy. As a long lease, termination must be by forfeiture. Mexfield’s tenancy agreement had a forfeiture clause. It would be interesting if others didn’t.

Unless forfeiture was for rent arrears, a Section 146 notice would have to be served, specifying the breach of lease conditions relied upon before forfeiture proceedings could be issued. And of course, the provisions on relief from forfeiture would also apply.

The upshot would seem to be that any Co-Op whose tenancy agreement that fell under s.149(6) in the same way as Mexfield’s, has just lost the right to summary possession.

Intriguingly, this very issue appears to have been raised back in April 2011 in the case of White v Quadrant Brownswood, another Co-Op possession case. See the comments to the post here. My guess would be that someone had come across, or heard about Mr Wonnacott’s arguments to be made in the Supreme Court, although that wasn’t heard till October.  Alternatively, there was a similar spark of inspiration in both cases. Without seeing the tenancy agreement in White, it is difficult to be certain, but I’d suspect that the Supreme Court has just given a large headache to Quadrant Brownswood.

The final question is how long the rule on uncertainty of term has to stand. Although the SC had an alternative solution in this case, it is clear that a large proportion of the panel were quite ready to scrap it should the need arise in another case.

Giles Peaker is a solicitor and partner in the Housing and Public Law team at Anthony Gold Solicitors in South London. You can find him on Linkedin and on Twitter. Known as NL round these parts.


  1. p

    Anyone interested to find out how the County Court will respond in a possession hearing against a member of a fully mutual co-op post Mexfield might like to visit Clerkenwell and Shoreditch County Court Wednesday morning November 23rd for the morning hearing of Quadrant Brownswood v Hillman.
    Quadrant Brownswood Housing Co-operative [edited by NL] issued Mr. Hillman with a NTQ alleging he had sublet his family home to his family!
    As Justice Lewison in April this year pointed out in the case of Quadrant Brownswood v White Quadrant Brownswood tenancy agreements are different from Mexfield in that they state that the tenancy ends on death of the tenant. QB tenancy agreements also state they have succession rights ”. “On the death of the tenant the tenant’s spouse (which includes a person living with the tenant as a husband or wife, or a gay or lesbian partner) shall have the right to succeed the tenancy provided that the person occupied the accommodation as his/her only or principle home at the time of the tenants death and that the tenant was not a successor him/herself”

    • NL

      Um, P, while I have no wish to comment on a case that is coming up to hearing – and I suggest that you do not either, or we’ll delete it as it is not appropriate – I don’t think that the fact that a tenancy agreement provides for succession rights necessarily makes the difference in a sub-let case that you appear to think it does. However, I have not seen the tenancy agreement and so won’t comment any further.

  2. p

    Qudrant Brownswood v Hillman has been transferred to a 3 day County Court trial in the spring 2012.

  3. Adrian Thompson


    I’ve been pondering and discussing this case since you published and thank you for the in-depth and clear analysis.

    I wonder if you agree with a couple of conclusions?

    (1) Where person A writes on the back of an envelope, “person B may stay in the house for as long as you like” (or words to that effect, you get the idea), this would be a tenancy for life, thus 90 years (no question there). However in the past in similar situations (and this is the crucial bit) I have always been of the view that because it was a 90 year agreement but wasn’t made as a deed it has no effect and notice maybe given etc.

    Would you agree though that in fact person A would be bound by the contract (despite not being made as a deed) but if he / she sold the house to person C, person C would not be bound (because it was not a valid “legal estate”)?

    (2) Similar to above, if a landlord accidentally creates a five year tenancy not as a deed (a common-ish situation), both parties will in fact be bound by the five year term but again if the property were sold, the new purchaser would not be bound (because it’s not a valid legal estate)?

    I suppose essentially I am suggesting the creation of a lease greater than 3 years by a deed is not essential and the only penalty (if I can call it a penalty) is that any party who may inherit the tenancy (such as purchase of property) will not be bound by the tenancy. But, crucially both parties to the tenancy will be contractually bound to it’s terms despite it not being a legal estate (as per s.52 Law of Property Act 1925).

    Sorry, I’ve kept it as short as I could!

    Many thanks


  4. NL

    We have had a number of comments relating to a fully mutual co-op which is to have a meeting about the tenants (now 90 year lease holders)and housing benefit. I have taken down those comments as they related to a particular and ongoing matter. As our comment policy states:

    We cannot offer advice on individual’s situations and cannot allow others to respond to comments containing individuals’ legal problems or situations. Comments by individuals seeking advice or assistance will be deleted without notice.

    However, it is certainly the case that there is a question mark over housing benefit entitlement and 90 year leases.

    The Confederation of Co-operative Housing received the following advice from the DWP (set out in their notes on the Mexfield case here:

    Although the Department for Work and Pensions has overall responsibility for the scope and structure of the Housing Benefit (HB) and Council Tax Benefit (CTB) schemes, local authorities have full statutory responsibility for their day-to-day administration. This Department cannot give an authoritative interpretation of the regulations; that is a matter for authorities to decide subject to any court ruling and depending on the circumstances of each individual case. I hope, however, that you find the following comments helpful.

    We are responsible for offering our interpretation of the HB regulations but your enquiry concerns tenure legislation. Therefore, I can only advise you to seek your own legal advice on the status of this liability but offer the following views.

    Housing Benefit can only be paid to a person who has a legally enforceable liability to pay rent on the dwelling they occupy as their home. I understand that the indeterminate duration of the tenancy may effectively grant a tenancy for life to the tenant. A tenancy that has no prescribed term of years and effectively terminates on the death of the claimant is in law a tenancy for 90 years and therefore has the appearance of a long tenancy for benefit purposes. Payments under a long tenancy are not eligible for Housing Benefit, a long tenancy being defined as one originally granted for more than 21 years, Housing Benefit regulation 12(2)(a) refers. Those with a long tenancy are treated as owners, for benefit purposes, and help with their housing costs is available through Income Support, income based Jobseekers Allowance, Employment Support Allowance or Pension Credit on much the same basis as Housing Benefit. The above regulation therefore acts as a means for determining, for benefit purposes, whether a person is a tenant or owner. A legal distinction is made between a lease originally made for more than 21 years and one for less. Essentially the distinction is between a short term tenancy that ends on the departure or death of the tenant and a long term tenancy which runs its course and which can be renewed, passed on or sold on. This effectively determines the difference between a tenant and an owner/leaseholder, which is picked up in the income related benefits. HB helps with the housing costs of the former and the others (IS, JSA, ESA or SPC) help the latter.

    However, there is case law for Jobseekers Allowance (CJSA/2746/2008) that clarifies the situation a little more. The Judge in that decision highlights that a long tenancy should be made by deed and be registered with the Land Registry. If that is not the case then the tenancy would not satisfy the definition of long tenancy in HB regulation 2(1) and therefore eligible for HB so long as all other conditions are met.

    From this, it appears that the DWP position is that a ‘Mexfield’ style lease falls into something of a grey area. While a lease for longer than 21 years, it is not saleable, renewable or inheritable. It is unlikely, at this stage at least, that any will be registered with the Land Registry and the tenancy agreements are unlikely to be by deed.

    Certainty on the issue may have to await an Upper Tribunal decision.

    I’ve also copied this comment to the post on Mexfield v Berrisford in the Supreme Court

  5. Hannah

    Hi there,

    just trying to get my heard around Mexfield…so is this the only case in which the judges seem happy (if the opportunity arises) to scrap the certainty rule.

    I know cases such as Skipton..lace v chantler and prudential show the need for a term certain (i.e certainty rule) then there is Bruton which briefly emerges as a new species of lease but is quickly quietened by Kay v Lambeth. How does this fit in with Mexfield as it proves to be sticking out to be as a sore thumb?


    • Giles Peaker

      A minority were prepared to revisit the rule on term uncertain, but given the successful argument, didn’t need to. The issue has been around for a while.

  6. Hannah Ruiz

    In relation to Mexfield if a person pays monthly rent and is allowed to stay for as long as one is working can that amount to a 90 year lease ?

    • Giles Peaker

      Possibly. But it would all depend on the precise wording of the tenancy agreement. And could not be a council or housing association or private tenancy – would have to be a co-op.

      • Hannah Ruiz

        I’m talking in terms of there being no formalities and its just a person renting out a plot of land of which they receive monthly payments.

        • Giles Peaker

          If there are no formalities then there is nothing to say person can stay as long as they are working. In the absence of any restrictions, terminable on come law notice.

          Sounds like a periodic tenancy to me.

        • Hannah Ruiz

          I see but then that is why I thought the 90 lease would apply as it’s an uncertain term also does a periodic tenancy not require formalities itself ?

        • Giles Peaker

          It is not an uncertain term unless there is something preventing the tenancy being ended unless some uncertain event occurs. A monthly periodic runs from month to month. If there was some condition, like the landlord will not end the tenancy unless tenant becomes unemployed, then that might be uncertain. but if there are no formalities, there is no such condition.

  7. Hannah Ruiz

    I took the condition as being uncertain as the tenancy would end once the landlord no longer works in a certain location & does a periodic tenancy not come under the requirements of a lease or does it sit as a right by itself?

    • Giles Peaker

      The landlord could probably end the tenancy at any time. Unless it was an express condition of the tenancy that the landlord would not terminate it until the landlord ceased to work in a certain location, then that has no bearing on it at all.

      A periodic tenancy is a lease, for a period of whoever long (weekly, monthly, quarterly, depending on how often rent is due) and continuing period by period. It is terminable by notice to quit at any point, subject to some common law rules about length of notice and when the notice expires.

      So, as the situation you describe sounds like it is outside of statutory conditions, it would be a common law periodic tenancy. There is no need for it to be in writing if it is just a monthly (or weekly, or quarterly) periodic.

  8. Hannah Ruiz

    Ah I see therefore a periodic tenancy would not give rights as such as it can easily be terminated? Also are they binding on 3rd parties

    • Giles Peaker


      Sorry, I am not going to give you a free lesson in the basics of land law. And we don’t give advice on people’s particular issues via the blog. And this is the kind of thing we get paid for.

  9. Hannah Ruiz

    Also if there is a periodic tenancy would this come under the characteristics of a lease e.g exclusive possession, certain term etc if this is the case how could it be a legal periodic tenancy if the formality requirements e.g a deed are not met?

  10. Jenny

    How is it that they relied on pre-1926 case law when the issue of this case arisen after?

    • Giles Peaker

      They didn’t. Or only to the extent that the propositions remain good in common law. Actually decided on the effect of LPA 1925.

  11. Angela Barton

    Does this mean that unless the uncertain term is determinable upon death s.149(6) will not apply?

    • NL

      I’m not sure I understand, but I think the answer is no in any event.

      • Angela Barton

        Sorry let me try rephrase… if an agreement is for an uncertain term e.g ending if a football team wins the league would situations like that give scope of s.149(6) to come into practice?

        • Giles Peaker

          Look at part 3 of the post….

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