Randy, rating, and his (house)boat

18 April 2013 by

3568615Reeves v. Northrop, CA, 17 April 2013, – read judgment

Randy Northrop is a Californian and a wanderer in spirit. He lives with his family aboard MY Cannis – see the pic. He got fed up of “living in a grotty council house in a rough area” of Bristol, so bought and renovated this former Thames tug. And nice inside it sounds too – two open fireplaces, several flat screen TVs, a music room and grand piano.

He spent 8 years moored in Bristol, but the “authorities there aren’t too keen on “live-aboards.”” So he moved on and in 2008 ended up in North Devon moored off Chivenor.

How then did he have the misfortune to stray into one of the backwaters of the law – the law of council tax? Because, after featuring in the local paper, he made a generous offer “as a gesture of good citizenship” to pay some “voluntary” council tax. And instead of the authorities saying “how kind, than you very much” he got a “statement” saying that he was Band A – “fait accompli” as he rightly observed. But a po-faced response which did not indeed endear itself to Randy. Hence this challenge by him to the authorities’ decision.

Sounds a bit dry? Not at all. In the witty and elegant prose of Sir Alan Ward, even rating law is made interesting – and the retired Lord Justice pokes fun at the pompous verbiage you have to wade through to answer the question – do you have to pay council tax on a moored boat?

Randy, doing it himself, started well. His written appeal document began with Mark Twain

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do, than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

The Valuation Tribunal evidently did – they allowed his appeal. Because, in this reference to throwing off bowlines, Randy had put his finger on one of the big issues in such cases – how temporary or permanent was his occupation? If permanent, you have to pay council tax even on a boat. But if temporary, you don’t, and as he submitted

“Our intentions are to leave this mooring SOON.”

and which the Tribunal accepted. The Tribunal also attached importance to the fact that at high water you had to get to MY Cannis by tender; there was no sewerage and no other land services save a hose pipe.

Hence, in the opaque terminology of this area of the law

no rateable hereditament has been established

and so neither the mooring nor the MY Cannis should be entered as a dwelling on the council valuation list.

However, Randy met stiffer headwinds and adverse spring tides in front of a High Court judge, Wyn Williams J, when the Council appealed. The judge thought that the Tribunal did not attach sufficient importance to the fact that MY Cannis had been moored in the same position for 2 years – apart from a couple of occasions when she had broken free from her moorings (she is obviously a wanderer too). So the judge decided that the Tribunal had erred in law, and thus felt able to take the decision afresh, and found against Randy.

The Court of Appeal agreed with the judge – despite Randy now being represented by an able QC. One of the key tests was whether the occupation of the boat had the “character of permanence about it and is not too transient to be ignored.” The length of time was not simply a factor of weight but on the facts of this case the determinative one.


Sir Alan Ward was absolutely right to criticise the way in which the rating laws were drafted, with semi-meaningless statutes amplified by a valiant Practice Note.  As he put it after setting out 7 sections from 4 different Acts of Parliament

If prizes are to be offered for legislative gobbledegook then the foregoing would surely qualify. Having undertaken that trawl through these various statutes I confess to my shame I am no wiser nor would any ordinary citizen be without help from the Practice Note. That does at least make sense

The underlying concepts are not that difficult – but the way they are wrapped with up with ancient land law words like “hereditament” would feed the prejudices of anyone who felt that law was made deliberately obscure so that lawyers could make money out of it.

But it would be churlish to leave on this note, without celebrating Sir Alan’s prose. He has always sought to write his judgments (on the law of fire, for example) in lively and comprehensible English, retaining clarity of meaning despite the glutinous legal subject-matter and the learning expressed. Having dismissed Randy’s appeal, and in bowline-slipping mood himself, the judge confessed

I have a sneaking sympathy for him because he did not use many of the services which council tax is supposed to provide and it may have been harsh to list him in band A. But all of that is of no moment. He had indicated that he was soon to move and he has moved from the mooring. He has thrown off the bow lines and sailed away from the safe harbour though whether to catch the trade winds in his sails or just withstand the buffetings of the gales in the English Channel I know not. In as much as this is the penultimate judgment I shall write after 18 years in the Court of Appeal, I am a kindred spirit who has sailed away from the safe harbour of the Royal Courts of Justice, not at all sure how to explore, or what to dream or what I am about to discover.

A neat reminder of Randy’s Twainian opening salvo before the Tribunal.


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  1. ObiterJ says:

    “Toodle pip”, Sir Alan. From time to time we all need to slip the bowlines so favourable tides to Randy and to Sir Alan.

  2. David Lamming says:

    Not only is Sir Alan witty, he has recently delivered some timely and withering comments on the Government’s legal aid changes, and the impact on the courts of having to deal with increasing numbers of self-represented litigants: see para 2 of his judgment in Wright v Michael Wright Supplies Ltd [2013] EWCA Civ 234

  3. Guy Mansfield QC says:


    A jolly good read


  4. May we wish Sir Alan all good fortune in his retirement from the bench.

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