When does "or" not mean "or"?

A landlord’s notice was ruled not to have been validly served despite the lease apparently giving the landlord two alternative addresses for service.The case of Grimes v The Trustees of the Essex Farmers & Union Hunt is a case that has driven many people to despair.

It concerns the service of a notice on Mr Grimes who was an agricultural tenant of farmland owned by the Trustees of the Essex Farmers & Union Hunt.

The lease stated that any notices served by either the landlord or the tenant should be served “at the address given in the Particulars or such other address as has previously been notified in writing”. The address for Mr Grimes stated in the Lease Particulars was “Glebe Way”. However, he subsequently moved to “Maple Way” and he wrote to the Trustees notifying them of his new Maple Way address.

When it came to terminating the tenancy agreement, the Trustees served the notice to quit at the Glebe Way address, being the address stated in the Lease Particulars. Mr Grimes was not happy about that and challenged the validity of the notice and argued that because he had told the Trustees of his new Maple Way address, the notice should have been served at that new address. The Trustees, quite understandably, pointed to the fact that the lease stated that notices could be served at either the address given in the Lease Particulars or at such other address as notified by the other party. This, the Trustees said, gave them the option.

The court disagreed and ruled that the “or” should be regarded as substitutive in effect. That is to say, once Mr Grimes had notified the Trustees of his new address, that new address took the place of the previous address and the Trustees could only serve at that new address.

Many regard this as a particularly harsh decision. The word “or” surely means “or”? But no, the court ruled that to leave the Trustees with an option to serve at an old address, when they had been told that the tenant had moved away from that address, would lead to a commercial absurdity. It would mean that a party could be validly served throughout the duration of the lease at an address which had been obsolete for many years.

The court considered that this was a matter of commercial common sense. It emphasised the need to consider the literal meaning of words alongside the context in which those words are used.

Needless to say the Trustees would not have gone wrong in this case if they had simply served the notice at both addresses as a precaution.

This article features in the Hughes Paddison Summer 2017 Property Disputes Update. You can view a summary of the full content of the newsletter and download a copy here.