The long-awaited judgment of the Supreme Court in the recent case of Rittson-Thomas v Oxfordshire County Council has seen the position on rights of reverter reversed, a significant outcome for those operating within the education sector. 

Background

With education and schooling not easily accessible in the early 1800s, the School Sites Act 1841 (‘the Act’) was enacted by Parliament as a means of encouraging landowners to gift land to be used as a school (or for other educational purposes, such as use as a teacher’s house).

Section 2 of the Act provides that if land gifted for educational purposes ceases to be used for such purposes, the ownership of the land ‘reverts’ back to the original owner. Naturally, this has encouraged donations of land to schools throughout the last century, with land owners safe in the knowledge that their donated property could not be sold off for profit or for any other use.

What, you might ask; happens when a school located on land donated pursuant to the Act decides to move site? Section 14 of the Act provides the answer, granting the trustees of a donated school site the power to sell the land without reverter applying – provided that any money received is used to fund the replacement school site.

Facts of the case

Oxfordshire County Council (‘the Council’) was the recipient of two parcels of land donated by a man called Robert Fleming in 1914 and 1928. The parcels of land, donated pursuant to section 2 of the Act, were to be used as part of Nettlebed Primary School.

In the early 2000s, the Council decided to relocate the school, intending on part funding the construction of the new school with the expected proceeds of sale from the original (donated) school site.

Construction was completed and the students were transferred from the old school to the new school in 2006. The original school site (initially left vacant and disused) was then sold in 2007.

The descendants of the donor claimed that reverter had been triggered when the school moved to the new site in 2006. They argued that, because the original school site had been vacated and left unused for over a year, the land at that point was no longer being used for educational purposes.

The High Court interpreted sections 2 and 14 of the Act broadly and held that holding an empty site with the intention of applying the proceeds of sale towards the benefit of the school was sufficient to satisfy use as a school and, therefore, reverter was not triggered. The decision was appealed.

The Court of Appeal agreed with the donor’s heirs. This meant that the proceeds of sale of the school site (approximately £1.25 million) were being held on trust by the Council for the heirs of the donor.

Unsurprisingly, the decision was appealed and brought in front of the Supreme Court in April 2021.

Decision

In a highly anticipated case, the Supreme Court was asked to decide whether or not a sale of donated school land under section 14 of the Act triggered a reverter if it took place after the school had moved site.

The Court answered in the negative: the donated site was not “ceasing to be used” for the purposes of the school when the school moved to the new site. The reason for this, the Court held, was down to the Council’s intention – it had always intended to apply the proceeds of sale to the construction of the new site.

To reach this decision, the Court adopted a broad, pragmatic and purposive approach to the interpretation of sections 2 and 14 of the Act.

It was further held that, in weighing up the pubic interest versus the donor’s interest, the Court should lean in favour of the educational purposes continuing if it is in the public interest, rather than being ended by reverter.

Conclusion

The Supreme Court judgment demonstrates a pragmatic and welcome approach and helps to protect the value of land that was provided under the Schools Sites legislation for educational purposes for the public benefit.

There is now a much clearer framework for those involved in planning the move of a school to a new site, where the original site was donated under section 2 of the Act. However, it will of course be important to document a clear intention to use the proceeds of sale on the new site.