A viewing gallery that tops the Tate Modern extension, the Blavatnik Building, offers museum visitors views of London. The view includes a spate of luxury apartments in the Neo Bankside, a residential development, directly across from the museum. The museum is situated so close to the building that observers from the gallery can look inside the apartments, take pictures, and wave at the apartment dwellers.
The apartment owners filed an injunction in 2019, demanding that Tate prevent its visitors from viewing the apartments. On Wednesday, the UK Supreme Court ruled in favor of those apartment owners, overturning two rejections of their claims in lower courts.
“I suspect that what lies behind the rejection of the claim by the courts below is a reluctance to decide that the private rights of a few wealthy property owners should prevent the general public from enjoying an unrestricted view of London and a major national museum from providing public access to such a view,” wrote Lord George Andrew Midsomer Leggatt, a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, in his judgment.
Lord Leggatt disagreed with the decisions of the lower courts. He called the situation a “straightforward case of nuisance,” referring to a use of land that wrongfully interferes with the ordinary use of neighboring land, according to the UK Supreme Court’s press summary. He also said the apartment owners had a right to privacy.
Among examples of precedence was a medieval case from 1341, in which a plaintiff claimed that a fishmonger by the name of John le Leche had created a leaden watchtower “upon which he and his household stand daily, watching the private affairs of the plaintiffs and her servants,” according to the judgment. The courts of the times sided with the plaintiff, and le Leche had to deconstruct his watchtower.
A lower-court judge had proposed that the apartment owners bring down their blinds or purchase sheer curtains. Lord Leggatt said that these solutions put the onus on the owners themselves, rather than on the Tate.
“It does not avail a trespasser to assert that he would not have wandered onto the claimant’s land if the claimant had erected a fence, or a burglar to argue that the claimant’s house would not have been burgled if the claimant had installed stronger locks,” Lord Leggatt wrote.