Prying eyes: Neighbors win a privacy dispute with UK Tate gallery

LONDON (AP) — The United Kingdom’s Supreme Court has said that people who live in glass houses have a right to privacy, too.

A court ruled on Wednesday that a display stand at London’s Tate Modern art gallery made residents of the adjacent glass-walled luxury apartments feel like animals in a zoo, and impeded the “normal use and enjoyment” of their homes.

The judges overturned previous lower court rulings that sided with the Tate Modern in the long-running privacy battle between the gallery – one of London’s biggest tourist attractions – and residents of four flats in the adjacent Neo Bankside complex.

Judge George Leggatt said the stand was visited by hundreds of thousands of people a year, who “frequently took photographs of the interiors of apartments and occasionally posted them on social media”.

In the court’s majority ruling, he wrote, “It is not hard to imagine what oppression any normal person would feel in such circumstances – just like showing up in a menagerie.”

“Undoubtedly, the viewing and photographing occurring from the Tate Building would cause a material interference with the normal use and enjoyment of the Claimants’ property.”

The court ruled that the exhibition violated the “General Law of Private Nuisance”. Three judges upheld the majority decision and two dissented.

Tate Modern opened in 2000 in a former power station on the south bank of the River Thames. He helped transform the surrounding Bankside neighborhood from a riverside backwater into an arts and nightlife hub filled with luxury apartment towers.

The viewing balcony – which has been closed since the coronavirus pandemic – is part of a pyramid-shaped extension opened in 2016 at the gallery, which sees more than 5 million visitors a year. Neo Bankside was completed a few years ago.

Lawyers for the residents said the 10th floor platform, which attracts more than half a million visitors a year, constituted an “unrelenting” violation of the residents’ privacy. They said visitors to the exhibition subjected the apartments to an “extensive visual inspection”, with some using binoculars and zoom lenses to get a better look.

The gallery said residents could solve the problem by pulling back or putting up blinds – and judges in the High Court and Court of Appeal agreed.

But the Supreme Court found the viewing platform was an “unnatural” use of the Tate Modern’s land, and the beleaguered residents had a point.

The justices said: “The Claimants cannot be compelled to live behind net curtains or to draw their curtains all day every day to protect themselves from the consequences of the intrusion arising from the unnatural use which the Tate makes of its land.”

The ruling surprised many legal experts.

“Past court decisions have indicated that if you are overlooked by others, it is just bad luck and you have no legal remedy,” said Richard Cresall, a partner at law firm Gordons. “The Supreme Court decided to put a cap on that.”

Claire Lamkin, a Kingsley Naples real estate attorney, said that although the judges “emphasized the rare circumstances” of the case, “there is no doubt that it will precipitate a wave of forfeiting cases as people feel that property development near them is too intrusive.”

The residents had asked the fair to protect their apartments from view or to pay compensation. The Supreme Court returned the case to the Supreme Court for a decision on an appropriate remedy.

Natasha Reese, the attorney for the five residents who launched the suit in 2018, said her clients “look forward to working with Tate as valued neighbors to find a practical solution that protects all of their interests.”

“As the case is still ongoing, we are unable to comment further,” Tate Modern said in a statement.

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