I could not pass up this Halloween time without touching upon at least one spooky subject and how the law relates to it. In the past Francisco has covered unusual laws pertaining to Halloween, David has posted about punishing rebellious children and witches, Kelly has taken us on a journey through time and told us about the sorcery laws in Papua New Guinea and I have covered some weird laws too. This year Nathan suggested that I check into whether there are laws that require sellers to disclose the existence of ghosts on properties in England. As many historical areas and buildings as there are in England, there is definitely no shortage of reports of spooky activity. In fact I don’t have to look too far from where I grew up. Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, a pub in my old stomping grounds, lays claim to being the oldest Inn in England and has many, many ghost stories attached to it.
With all the history and ghost stories contained in England, it is a little surprising to me that there is not a large body of case law that has built up around the sale of supposedly haunted houses. Obviously, buyers will be aware of the ghostly residents of the more renowned haunted homes, and it seems for some (eccentric?) buyers that paranormal activity may be quite a selling point. For others is generally detracts from the value of the home – who really wants to buy a modest Georgian terraced home and share it with a former inhabitant? In most cases, the law is about protecting people and their rights, so what about the unwitting buyer who wakes up terrified on the first night in their new home? Do they have any recourse in the law?
Rather unsurprisingly, there is no statute that requires a seller to pro-actively disclose the existence of paranormal activity in a house to a buyer. The most relevant statute is the Property Misdescriptions Act 1991. This Act provides that it is an offence to make a false or misleading statement, which may occur either in writing or verbally, in the course of selling a house. This does not place a duty on the realtor (known in England as a real estate agent) to pro-actively disclose that a house is rumoured to be haunted, it simply provides that if asked, and the seller is aware of the fact, they cannot lie without committing an offence. The penalty for the offence is a fine. Sadly for anyone then encumbered with a house they consider uninhabitable due to spectral activity, this offence does not render the contract void or unenforceable, nor does it provide them with a right of action in civil proceedings with regards to any loss that arise as a result of an offence under the provision.
Ultimately, it seems this is a case where asking the right questions may save some heartache and goosebumps later, and also provide for recourse if the answers prove to have been misleading. The age old doctrine of caveat emptor applies – buyer beware. Unless it can be shown that the seller knew of the existence of paranormal activity and that paranormal activity does exist on the property, it is difficult to succeed in a legal battle. The latter question I think poses a little more difficulty as despite the existence of ghost hunters, I don’t think that one yet has conclusively proven the existence of ghosts. I also don’t think that it would be sufficient to go into court and testify that a place giving you the heebie jeebies provides you with a good course of action. As buying a home is one of the most expensive purchases a person generally makes, if you are buying in England, you may want to be known as that odd person who asks, in writing, if there has been any paranormal activity on the premises.
If you are so inclined to venture into the Library of Congress to read more about England’s ghosts and ghouls, the general collection has over 200 titles related to the topic, including:
Terence Whitaker, Haunted England: Royal Spirits, Castle Ghosts, Phantom Coaches & Wailing Ghouls (1987);
Christina Hole, Haunted England, A Survey of English Ghost-lore (1941);
Simon Marsden et al, This Spectred Isle: A Journey Through Haunted England (2005);and
Harry Price, The most haunted house in England: ten years investigation of Borley Rectory (1940).