Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Law of Land & Property - Part 2 - Fixture or Chattel?

The definition of a fixture is sometimes subject to heated debate, however in general terms the law considers a fixture as something that is permanently fixed to the property/land and therefore is deemed to form part of it. 

Anyone who has bought and sold property over recent years will be very familiar with the pack of information that they receive from their legal advisors which details or schedules out all of the fixtures and fittings that will form part of the property/land.  This is important because there were often conflicts between a purchaser and a seller in respect of what formed part of the property/land and what did not.  It is therefore interesting to see what the law says about what is a fixture (and therefore forms part of the property/land) and what is a chattel (which does not).

The definition of a fixture is sometimes subject to heated debate, however in general terms the law considers a fixture as something that is permanently fixed to the property/land and therefore is deemed to form part of it.  Fixtures will therefore include things like buildings together with anything that is permanently attached to it.  If something is secured in place by anything other than its own weight, it is highly likely to be considered as a fixture.  A chattel on the other hand and hardly surprisingly is the exact opposite, being something that is easily removed and therefore cannot be considered as permanent. Chattels are therefore generally considered as temporary and easy to move (although there a number of exceptions to this, which will be considered later).  Before proceeding it is worth clarifying that the law considers ‘tenant fixtures’ in a very different way to other types of fixtures.  For the purposes of this article I will not be discussing tenant fixtures, which is a topic I will save for a future article.

Property is usually bought and sold under a contract which therefore allows the buyer and seller to come to whatever agreement they want in respect of fixtures and chattels.  Where this agreement is lacking, whether by ignorance or wilfulness and a dispute ensues the parties will sometime go court in order to resolve the dispute. Under the doctrine of judicial precedent the courts in the UK are bound by decisions made in similar previous cases so it is worth looking at some previous cases to help us to understand how the courts decide what is a fixture and what is a chattel.

The case of Holland v Hodgson (1872) is commonly referred to where the question in respect of fixtures and chattels.  The case related to whether some factory machinery (looms) were a fixture and formed part of a factory or if they indeed were chattels.  As stated above the law relating to tenant fixtures has evolved since this case however the test used for determining whether something is a fixture of a chattel is still relevant.  In deciding whether something is a fixture or a chattel the Judge identified two tests.  Firstly, the degree on annexation (how and the extent to which something is fixed) and the purpose of the annexation (the reason for fixing the item). In explaining the test the Judge went on to say that ‘articles that are only attached to the land by their weight are not usually considered to be part of the land, unless they were actually intended to form part of the land’. In order to demonstrate this point the judge gave an example of a dry stone wall, stating that ‘a pile of stones, randomly stacked in the middle of a field, would not be part of the land but when they have been arranged, packed, and formed into a stone wall, then they clearly are intended to be part of the land’. In any case it is the responsibility of the person/party claiming that an object forms part of the land to prove it.

In the case of Berkley v Poulett (1976) a dispute arose relating to whether certain items sold at auction were deemed to be fixtures and therefore formed part of the property/land or whether they were chattels.  The items in question were some pictures fitted into panelling in a wall and in the garden, a heavy marble statue resting on plinth and a sundial.  The Court of Appeal considered the test used in Holland v Hodgson and concluded that the pictures, although fixed to the wall were chattels as ‘they were put on the walls to be enjoyed as pictures, rather than with the intention of making them part of the land’. The statue was also not attached to the land, but was placed on a plinth that was attached to the land. The Court concluded that the plinth formed part of the land, but the statue did not, because there was no evidence that the statue was designed as part of an ‘architectural scheme’. The sundial was also determined to be a chattel, because it had been detached from its pedestal many years earlier.

If we contrast the case of Berkley v Poulett with the case of D’Eyncourt v Gregory (1866) we can see how the courts arrived at a different decision for similar items. In this case a sundial was also held to be a chattel rather than a fixture, however, in the garden, statues, figures, vases, and stone garden seats that were part of the architectural design of the grounds were deemed to be fixtures, whether or not they were attached to the ground.

In most property transactions the question of whether something is a fixture or a chattel is relatively straightforward however in instances where this is bought into question it is worth being aware that there is precedent for determining this and resolving disputes.  As stated above, in a future article I will tackle the issue of ‘tenant fixtures’, where we will find that the law differs from that stated above.

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