Aslan v Murphy (No 1)

February 26, 2024
Micheal James

Jurisdiction / Tag(s):

Introduction to Aslan v Murphy (No 1)

In the heart of English land law lies the landmark case of Aslan v Murphy (No 1). Decided in 1989 by the Court of Appeal, this case grappled with a fundamental question: does Mr. Aslan’s occupation of a cramped basement room amount to a protected tenancy under the Rent Act 1977, or is it merely a bare licence that offers him scant legal protection? The answer, hinged on deciphering the true nature of his agreement with Mr. Murphy, the landlord, and its implications for the delicate balance between tenant rights and landlord freedom.

Facts of the Case

Mr. Aslan found himself inhabiting a diminutive basement room measuring a mere 4ft 3in by 12ft 6in. The agreement he signed with Mr. Murphy established a rental fee and a duration, seemingly mirroring the traditional trappings of a tenancy. However, the document included clauses that cast a shadow on Mr. Aslan’s exclusive possession of the space. Mr. Murphy retained the key, and a curious provision restricted Mr. Aslan’s access for 90 minutes every day. Additionally, Mr. Murphy promised certain services like cleaning and linen changes, blurring the lines between a tenancy and a lodger arrangement.

Mr. Aslan, sensing the potential unfairness, argued that these provisions were mere pretenses, a smokescreen to deny him the rightful status of a tenant and its accompanying protections under the Rent Act. He contended that in reality, he enjoyed exclusive possession and fulfilled all the obligations of a tenant.

Legal Issues

The crux of the legal battle rested on differentiating between a tenancy and a licence. A tenancy grants exclusive possession, affording the occupier substantial control and legal security. Conversely, a licence offers limited rights, often characterized by shared living spaces and minimal control over the premises.

The Rent Act 1977 bestowed significant rights upon tenants, including security of tenure and rent control. Therefore, establishing Mr. Aslan’s true status became paramount. Anti-avoidance principles came into play, preventing landlords from manipulating agreements to deprive tenants of these statutory protections.


The Court of Appeal, siding with Mr. Aslan, declared him a tenant. Justice Donaldson, delivering the judgment, saw through the facade of the agreement, declaring the restrictive clauses “pretences” devoid of any genuine intent. He emphasized that despite the key retention and limited access, Mr. Aslan enjoyed exclusive possession in practice, paying rent, furnishing the room, and controlling his living environment. The court recognized the anti-avoidance principle at play, refusing to allow landlords to cloak tenancies as licences merely to circumvent tenant protections.

Implications of the Case

Aslan v Murphy (No 1) stands as a cornerstone in English land law, providing clarity on the tenant-licence distinction. The case strengthened the application of anti-avoidance principles, safeguarding tenants from landlords attempting to undermine their rights through cunningly drafted agreements. Landlords were cautioned against deploying “sham” clauses, as the court prioritized the substance of the occupation over superficial contractual language.

For tenants, the case served as a beacon of hope, demonstrating that legal mechanisms exist to ensure their rightful status and the protections it entails. The decision upheld the spirit of the Rent Act, ensuring that even seemingly marginal living spaces like basements could qualify for tenant protection under the right circumstances.


Aslan v Murphy (No 1) remains a pivotal case in the ongoing conversation about tenant rights and responsible landlord practices. It reminds us that legal technicalities cannot obscure the reality of an occupier’s relationship with their dwelling. This case continues to guide courts in navigating the nuances of tenancy agreements, ensuring that landlords cannot unfairly leverage artificial constructs to deprive tenants of their rightful legal standing.

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