What is an easement?
An easement comes in a number of forms but may generally be described as the right to use another person’s land without occupying it.
It may be a private right between specified landowners, or an easement in gross, granted to a public authority by operation of statute. Easements may be implied if not expressly created; and easements may be prescribed by using land for at least 20 years without secrecy, permission or force.
What types of easements are there?
- A private easement is a property right to make a limited use of land by someone other than an owner. It cannot give exclusive possession, and must be for the benefit of other land (the dominant land).
- An easement in gross is an easement for the benefit of the holder of the easement (usually a service provider) which is not attached to dominant land. It is not recognised at common law and is a creature of statute. An example might be a drainage easement along the rear of a number residential properties in favour of a water authority.
- An implied easement is an easement that is not expressly created by grant or reservation in an instrument or by statute but is implied by common law or statute so that the land can continue to be used in a particular way.
- A prescriptive easement is an easement acquired by using land for at least 20 years without secrecy, permission or force.
What are the key elements of a private easement?
- There must be a dominant and servient tenement;
- the easement must accommodate the dominant tenement;
- the owners of the dominant and servient tenements must be different from each other; and
- the right or claim must be capable of being the subject matter of a grant.
In Victoria, private easements can be expressly created by grant or reservation:
- Creating an easement by ‘grant’ means that the servient owner grants the dominant owner an easement over his or her land for the benefit of the dominant land.
- An easement is created by ‘reservation’ when a vendor conveys land to a purchaser but reserves an easement over that land, for the benefit of other land that the vendor owns.
How do I know if land is burdened by an easement?
Typically, if land is burdened by an easement, it will be noted under the heading “Encumbrances, Caveats and Notices” on a register search or on a plan of subdivision.
However, under section 42(2)(d) of the Transfer of Land Act 1958, all easements, ‘howsoever acquired’, exist over land even if they do not appear on the register. This is significant, because while covenants can fall away if they not clear on the face of the title, easements may survive the sale process even if they are not revealed on an inspection of the Register.
How do I know if land is benefited by an easement?
Assessing who takes the benefit of an easement requires careful analysis.
The benefit of private easements cannot flow to the public at large. The exception is an easement in gross, which will confer a licence upon the person for whom the right was created. Easements in gross are commonly created in favour of statutory bodies, such as the local government or water authorities.
That said, the case of Anderson & Anor v City of Stonnington & Anor  VSC 374 provides a detailed explanation of how easements can become roads, and if and when that occurs, the operation of the Road Management Act 2004, may mean the easement is permanently displaced.
How can I remove or modify an easement?
Presently, there is no judicial means of removing or modifying easements in Victoria.
There are two options: claim of abandonment and s 23 of the Subdivision Act 1988 in combination with the Planning and Environment Act 1987.
Claims for abandonment are notoriously difficult to prosecute. In Brookville Pty Ltd v O’Loghlen  VSC 67, Kaye J found that in order to establish abandonment, the plaintiff must prove that the owner of the dominant tenement intended to relinquish their rights to the easement forever.
Section 23 of the Subdivision Act 1988 in combination with the Planning and Environment Act 1987, allow for easements to be removed or varied, without the consent of or compensation being paid to beneficiaries. For this to occur, a planning permit must first be granted under clause 52.02 of the relevant planning scheme, the purpose of which is “to enable the removal and variation of an easement or restrictions to enable a use or development that complies with the planning scheme after the interests of affected people are considered.” An example of this in operation can be found in Warner Crest Pty Ltd v Stonnington CC  VCAT 36.
How is an express subdivisional easement created?
There are overlapping provisions for the creation of express subdivisional easements contained in two different statutes:
- section 12(1) of the Subdivision Act 1988; and
- section 98(a) of the Transfer of Land Act 1958.
Section 12(1) of the Subdivision Act 1988 requires all proposed and existing easements to be specified in subdivision plans. These easements are then created upon registration of the plan. Easements created under this section are in addition to those created under section 98(a) of the Transfer of Land Act 1958.
Section 36 of the Subdivision Act 1988 also provides for an owner of land to acquire an easement compulsorily over other land in the subdivision or consolidation, or in the vicinity, if granted leave to do so by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal. The best step by step analysis of this provision can be seen in JT Snipe Investments Pty Ltd v Hume CC (Red Dot)  VCAT 1831, however, Gale v Frankston CC  VCAT 62 suggested a slight change in emphasis.
How is a prescriptive easement created?
Another way easements can arise without being expressly created is under a common law rule called prescription. A prescriptive easement can be acquired by what is called ‘long user’ or 20 years of continuous use.
Victoria retains many common law rules of implication and prescription that predate the subdivisional planning system, as well as the new statutory provisions for implied subdivisional easements.
In Laming v Jennings  VSCA 335, the Court of Appeal made some interesting comments about the apparent inconsistency of prescriptive easements with the Torrens system. It concluded by noting that the historical rationale of legal fictions such as the doctrine of lost modern grant has significantly diminished with the advent of modern systems for the registration of title, comprehensive planning laws and more mature land law jurisprudence.
*Matthew Townsend has an online blog, Restrictive Covenants in Victoria, in which he discusses cases and news about restrictive covenants in Victoria.