To the Commission of the Guildable Manors

From W. G. Senhouse QC

Thank you for your instructions in relation to this rather complex matter.

The Liberty of the Southern Hallows is an independent liberty of London. As such, it enjoys freedom from a number of the restrictions and obligations applicable to the rest of the city, and indeed the country. The most substantial of these freedoms is the relief from all tax liabilities for all residential and commercial properties within the liberty, as defined as the area beneath the district rood. This relief was granted by means of the royal decree commonly known as ‘King William’s Gift.’

The relevant legislation was passed in 1694. At that time, the district roof was a relatively modest construction, covering only the central part of the district and the immediately surrounding streets. It has been the subject of a number of expansion projects, and now covers a much greater area than the granting monarch could reasonably have been expected to foresee. This fact has given rise to two legal challenges, both unsuccessful. I mention this by way of background, as the legal status of that area is not in dispute at this time.

The matter upon which I have been asked to advise relates to a number of specific properties within the area known as the district precincts, or outer district. This area consists of a small number of streets, squares and undefined areas, situated directly outside the district wall, to the east and south-east. It does not fall beneath the cover of the district roof, although some patches of old building work do survive, suggesting various attempts to bring these streets under that cover, and, presumably, beneath the governance of the district authorities.

The history of these streets is not well-recorded, but it would seem that the area’s legal status only came into formal dispute at the end of the nineteenth century, during the consultation phase that preceded the creation of the London Borough of Lambeth under the London Government Act 1899. In 1898, the Lambeth Vestry, as the administrative predecessor of the Lambeth Borough Council, submitted evidence to the Royal Commission on the Unification of London, in support of their claim that the district precincts should be considered a part of Lambeth, no different to any other part. This claim led to the first of three legal challenges, none of which proceeded to final litigation, but were, instead and unusually, left to lie on the court files. Unfortunately, very few of the papers relating to these three claims have survived, and I cannot, therefore, provide any robust opinion as to why they did not succeed, or even conclude in the usual manner of litigation.

In relation to the 1898 matter, I have been able to glean some information from the clerk’s notes. It would seem that the Vestry filed a substantial body of documentary evidence, including various legal opinions. There is no indication, however, that the District Board were actively engaged in defending the matter. There is a single reference to a chambers in Harcourt Passage, Middle Temple, but not to any instructed counsel. Since there was no formal conclusion to the proceedings, the status of the residents of the district precincts remained unresolved. It is clear from the body of anecdotal evidence concerning this area, that they simply continued as they always had done, ignoring any potential financial liability arising from their alleged residence within the boundaries of Lambeth parish, and its successor, the London Borough of Lambeth, and availing themselves of few of the services provided by those administrative bodies.

One specific issue detailed in the clerk’s notes was that of the requirement for Lambeth residents to register all births, marriages and deaths within the local area. In relation to residents of the district precincts, it would seem that there exists an unofficial entitlement to register these events in the district registry. It is not clear how many precinct residents have taken this option, but it is apparent is that it has caused the local authorities considerable concern over many years, since the result of registration within an independent liberty is that the only accessible record of the event in question will be a short form index entry at the Central Record Office, and the availability of even this limited information is entirely dependent upon the liberty complying with its statutory duty.

Essentially, the district precincts have been left, to a great extent, as a semi-independent and self-governing enclave, with the majority of the properties owned and occupied by the descendants of earlier generations of residents, although there are a few tenanted properties. It appears to be highly unusual for properties within the precincts to change hands, although, given that the processes of probate and land registration do not seem to operate in anything approaching the usual manner within this area, there may be unrecorded transactions.

These issues are relevant to the matter upon which I am instructed, which concerns five connected residential properties, forming a small, unnamed close in the district precincts. I have marked the relevant properties on the attached map. These five houses were all owned by one Daniel Grayson Scott until his death six months ago. Mr Scott’s only living relative, and sole beneficiary, is James Henry Grayson, the son of Mr Scott’s first cousin. While Mr Grayson was born in the district precincts, he has been, for the majority of his life, a resident of the London Borough of Southwark. However, it is clear that he has some understanding of the way in which the precincts operate when it comes to matters such as probate, as he made no attempt to apply to administer his relative’s estate in the usual manner. Instead, he has simply assumed ownership. Had he chosen to retain the properties in question, all of which are tenanted, this matter might never have come to the attention of the authorities. However, he took the decision to attempt a sale of the five properties via an agent in Lambeth. A buyer was identified, but the sale could not proceed as Mr Grayson was, of course, unable to produce any of the proper paperwork relating to the property. Had he withdrawn from the sale at this point, once again, the matter would, almost certainly, have gone unnoticed as far as the authorities were concerned. However, Mr Grayson took what could be considered the somewhat unwise decision to seek official recognition of his title to the properties, and corresponding right to dispose of them as he wished. It is not necessary to detail the somewhat convoluted process by which the matter came to the attention of those instructing me, save to note that Mr Grayson has, at various times and in writing, asserted his title to the properties, and, in doing so, has confirmed the method by which they came into his possession, and that when he registered the death of Mr Scott, he did so at the Lambeth registry, thus providing further evidence of the chain of events leading to the attempted sale. Suffice it to say that Mr Grayson’s assertion of ownership eventually came to the attention of the XXX.

It is the position of the XXX that the benefit of all revenues relating to these properties passed to the committee in the late eighteenth century, following the death, without issue, of one Bertram Halcock, the last lord of the manor of Kennington North. In support of this claim, the committee has provided me with the following documents:

i The will of Sir Bertram Halcock, dated 1794, probated 1797

ii A map of the holdings of the manor of Kennington North, dated 1748

iii A copy of an entry from the committee’s minute books, detailing the bequest

iv Various documents relating to the committee’s function and hierarchy

Mr Grayson has not instructed Counsel, and the documents detailing his position on this matter are somewhat garbled, but he appears to base his claim of ownership upon a rather vague form of common law which, he asserts, applies only within the district precincts, and upon some of the ‘Freeman on the Land’ principles, known to all courts and members of the judiciary as a persistent myth, generally perpetuated by vexatious litigants.

Notwithstanding the deficiencies in Mr Grayson’s case, it is my opinion that it would be neither prudent, nor cost-efficient for the committee to proceed with this claim. The 1794 will refers to the revenue of various other properties within the district precincts. While the committee is not actively seeking a ruling upon those other potential revenues, it would be difficult for a court to rule upon these five specific residences without either considering, or setting a precedent for future consideration of the status of the other properties within the scope of the Halcock bequest. This would, potentially, force the court to consider the historically difficult question of the status of the district precincts. It would be impossible for a court to enforce the payment of the relevant revenues without an implied finding that the district precincts enjoy no special status that would protect residents from financial claims from external bodies. It is quite clear from a close and between-the-lines reading of the few surviving records relating to previous legal proceedings, that the courts have been reluctant to see this issue pursued to its conclusion.

While the committee’s claim does appear to have a solid legal basis, I must conclude that it would be impossible to separate that claim from the various other complex issues relating to the district precincts, and that it is, therefore, likely that litigation would fail. I do not feel it appropriate to speculate here as to the reasons for the somewhat unusual outcomes of previous proceedings, but I am happy to discuss the matter further should the committee’s representatives wish me to arrange a meeting.