Owners of a double-storey shophouse in Little India now have no legal access to the second level of their property and may have to build their own staircase to get to it.
This is after the Court of Appeal ruled that they had no right to use what they had access to in the past: a staircase in their neighbour's unit.
The case is significant as it raises "issues that our courts are likely to face in the future as Singapore becomes increasingly built up, and disputes between neighbours over the creation and scope of easements become more frequent", wrote Judge of Appeal Andrew Phang.
He delivered the judgment on behalf of the court, which included Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon and Justice Steven Chong.
In this case, a firm called Madras Investments had acquired the two adjoining units in 1993 and, at that time, each unit had only a ladder to access the upper floor.
The firm obtained approval for alterations in 1995 and made changes so that access to the second level of one of the units was only through the staircase of the other.
In 2004, Mr V. Muthukumaran and his wife bought the unit which had no direct access to the upper floor. The unit came tenanted.
In April 2010, Mr Kwong Kai Chung and Ms Catherine Kwong bought the other unit.
Mr Muthukumaran and his wife said when their tenant moved out in February 2010, they found the doorway lock to the staircase in the neighbour's unit had been changed.
Six months later, the only entrance to their unit's second floor, near the upper staircase landing of the adjacent unit, was boarded up.
When their contacts with Mr Kwong and Ms Kwong failed to produce a solution, the couple took them and the previous owners to court. At issue was whether Mr Muthukumaran and wife had an implied right of way, or easement, through the neighbour's property to access their own upper floor.
Under the Land Titles Act (LTA), an easement had to be indicated as part of the registered land, but the court, in this case, had to consider if an easement could be implied.
The couple failed in the High Court last yearto obtain an order to give them right of way.
Madras Investments claimed Mr Muthukumaran and his wife were told when they bought the unit they would have to build their own staircase, but the couple denied this.
They took the matter to the higher court and, at the appeal hearing in September, their lawyer, Mr George Pereira, argued that there was a right of way as a sub-division plan had been certified in a 1997 plan, among other things.
Lawyers Adrian Wong and Yan Yijung opposed the appeal on behalf of Mr Kwong and Ms Kwong.
The court noted that approvals obtained by Madras Investments and the sub-division of the units in the certified 1997 plan fell within the requirements of the LTA.
But the easement was "not indicated" in the 1997 sub-division plan as required under the relevant section of the LTA, so the appeal failed.
The court said the 1995 development plan did not help the case as it showed only a drawing of the staircase for the adjoining unit and did not indicate an easement arose in Mr Muthukumaran's favour.