"The essence of the tort of nuisance is interference with the enjoyment of land".
- RP Balkin; JLR Davis. “Law of Torts 5th Edition.”
When the word nuisance is brought up in colloquial use, we think first of some form of bother or annoyance coming from somewhere. The nuisance is to me, to my person; my neighbour practicing the saxophone at midnight, or the smell coming from a nearby stable, are nuisances, as the noise / smell is offensive to me.
But the way the law sees it, at least with regards to private nuisance, for any action for the tort of nuisance to be actionable (meaning: to have legal grounds for suit), the plaintiff must have an interest in land, first and foremost. A nuisance (according to the law) occurs when an annoyance or bother interferes with my enjoyment of my land, not merely when I have been annoyed or bothered without any connection to land.
In practical terms, this means that you must either own land, or have leased land to be able to sue for nuisance.
When you are repeatedly woken up by bad jazz coming from your neighbour's apartment downstairs, you have an action in nuisance, not simply because you've been disrupted in your sleep, but because in doing so, your neighbour has interfered with your right to enjoy your land as you see fit.
Nuisance can fall into one of two categories:
1️⃣ Nuisance by unreasonable physical injury to land; or
2️⃣ Nuisance by unreasonable substantial interference with the right to enjoyment of land.
The first of the two categories is perhaps easier to identify, as it involves physical damage. Balkin and Davis, the authors of a distinguished book on torts, gives the examples of a neighbour setting up vibrations which cause your building to collapse, or the fumes from a nearby factory damaging plants and vegetables being grown by a plaintiff. The damage is plain to see, as it is to property, and it is equally plain to see why physical damage to property amounts to an interference with your enjoyment of your land.
If you cast your mind back to the example of the saxophonist neighbour, for all your lost sleep, there is no damage to your property which you could show before a court. The damage, in this example, is to your ability to make use of your land, to your right to use your land for rest. Fortunately, the law does recognise this as a form a nuisance, though the interference with your rights must be substantial.
This means that trivial interferences will not constitute nuisance, though what is trivial is a matter for the courts to decide. In general, substantial interference as determined by the courts, seems to have a lower bar than what we might consider substantial in an everyday sense. As per Andreae v Selfridge & Co Ltd  3 All ER 255, lost sleep through excessive noise is substantial, as can be other activities such as a neighbour's use of their land as premises for prostitution, or the installation of floodlights, which ends up bleeding light onto an adjacent piece of land (again examples cited in Balkin and Davis, “Law of Torts 5th Edition”).
Any nuisance must also be unreasonable, a concept which has not been given a clear definition by the courts.
The reasons as to why reasonableness is relevant to liability in nuisance does, however, give some guidance: my neighbour also has the right to make use of his or her land, including for the practice of musical instruments. Unfortunately, acoustics pays little heed to human subdivisions of space, no matter human attempts to erect walls with sound-proofing. The interference with my right to enjoyment of my land has started from my neighbour's land; he or she has not stepped foot in my apartment (which would make things a lot easier, being an act of trespass).
Reasonableness looks to balance the nature and circumstances of my neighbour's activity which has given rise to the nuisance, against the nature and circumstances in which I have suffered interference.
As noted above, we do not have a clear definition for what makes a nuisance reasonable or unreasonable, and so we don't have a definitive list of considerations, though we can look to certain things courts took into account in previous cases.
For example, residents who have moved into industrial areas have diminished prospects of success for nuisance from industrial by-products given that courts will look to locality; unfortunately, industrial production often involves by-products, and in areas designated for such use, it is not unreasonable for run off to affect neighbouring land, unless there was something unreasonable about the production process in the first place.
Another such consideration is the hypersensitivity of plaintiffs. An action in nuisance is unlikely to succeed where the plaintiff has suffered interference on account of particular sensitivity requiring exceptional freedom from interference. If my neighbour has consistently awoken me, for I am in fact awoken by any sort of noise, my claim may well fail.
Note, however, that once unreasonable substantial interference has been made out, in the process of calculating damages, the particular hypersensitivity of a plaintiff will not diminish the quantum of any damages. The defendant must find the plaintiff as they were in this regard. The Privy Council in McKinnon Industries Ltd v Walker  3 DLR 577 noted that the particular vulnerability of orchids to industrial fumes became irrelevant once it was proved that the damage to the orchids were the consequence of a non-trivial interference with land.
This FAQ was written by Suk Jae Chung | Practical Legal Training (PLT) Placement, Blue Ocean Law Group℠.
This FAQ is intended for general interest + information only.
It is not legal advice, nor should it be relied upon or used as such.
We recommend you always consult a lawyer for legal advice specifically tailored to your needs & circumstances.