Land, boundaries and neighbours

Disputes with neighbours

A dispute between neighbours may be about something with a money value. More often however it is about civil behaviour or a legal right, for example a right of access or light, or nuisance caused by tree roots or excessive noise.

A neighbour dispute usually starts in a small way and escalates. It becomes a psychological power struggle. One side feels aggrieved and becomes increasingly frustrated at the refusal of the other to take some particular action. The other party probably understands the issue well enough and may even seem to agree that his action is necessary. But at the end of the day nothing is done. The process is repeated.

Continues for ever . . . .

The aggrieved party maintains the grievance, sometimes for years, not wanting to upset the neighbour relationship unnecessarily. Eventually, he will talk to his solicitor so that at least he understands whether his position was supported by the law.

Eventually, he instructs his solicitor to write a letter explaining his position to the other side. The backup in such a letter, whether stated explicitly or not, has to be the threat of litigation. Often, winning becomes more important than trying to solve the dispute.

. . . .until litigation looms

As soon as litigation is in the air, both parties begin to understand that even the simplest case in the County Court will cost them £25,000-£50,000 each. From there, it is only a matter of time before the solicitor, or maybe one of the parties, suggests mediation. Every solicitor knows that as soon as such a claim is issued in court, the judge will insist that the parties go to mediation.

Mediation is by far the best way to settle a dispute between neighbours. Often enough, the very fact of open questioning by the mediator strikes the conscience of the offender enough to elicit a written promise to take the necessary action.

Who is right?

More often than not, there is a clear legal answer to who is right and who is wrong. That may be based on one of these propositions:

  • When a building company constructs multiple houses on a site, they make a set of negative rules, called covenants, which have to be accepted by every house buyer. Sometimes a house owner will consider one of the covenants to be ridiculous. He will simply refuse to comply. However, protection or amenity provided by that covenant could even have been one of the reasons why the neighbour bought that particular house in the first place. Many disputes arise from this source.
  • Other land rights, largely those known as "easements". These relate to parking, access, and other specific rights which have been acquired in some way in the past.
  • Common law nuisance is a very broad category which is often relied on. It was defined long ago as: "causing a substantial and unreasonable interference with a [claimant]'s land or his/her use or enjoyment of that land". In the round, it covers noise, dogs, bright lights and so on.
  • Everyone knows about negligence. It is a very wide concept which has also been incorporated into various acts and regulations.
  • Yet another basis for claim could be the rule explained at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rylands_v_Fletcher . That provides that you are liable to your neighbour if you allow water, or anything else detrimental, to escape from your premises onto his.
  • Finally, we have the Human Rights Act which is often thrown in as an afterthought because it covers almost everything.

Common complaints which come before the court include

In a suburban location:

  • boundary arguments
  • barking dog
  • leaving dog loose to wander
  • dog is aggressive, or at least frightens children
  • noise – particularly constant, repetitive noise of machinery, equipment or music, including late-night parties
  • exterior lighting which protrudes onto neighbour’s land or into windows
  • unfounded accusations based on fear of what the neighbour might have done
  • hedges, or any other growth which spreads onto neighbour’s land or causes excessive shade
  • reduction of right to light
  • reduction or interference with a right of access or parking
  • drone activity, which could interfere with privacy
  • ungrounded fears and threats

In the country:

  • streams, ditches, drainage
  • drifting chemical spray
  • shooting, bird scarers
  • boundaries and fencing obligations
  • rights of way

How a mediator can help

Of course, mediation is not just about business contracts or sorting the money after your divorce. Disputes between neighbours and other issues relating to land are just one category of your personal affairs particularly well suited for resolution through mediation.

The mediation process is straightforward. The Mediator will deal with your dispute objectively, sympathetically and fairly. He will not be a judge or critic. He will simply help you to find solutions you may not previously have considered and will nudge you in the direction of finding a settlement acceptable to both parties.

For a dispute relating to land, the Mediator will certainly need to come and have a look on site and weigh up the problems for himself. In some cases it may be helpful for him to talk to each side separately; in others it may be possible to discuss over a cup of tea in someone’s kitchen or at the local pub.

If the circumstances are complicated then the dispute may require mediation more aligned to the procedure for a business dispute. If that is your preference, it opens up a wide range of possibilities with regard to the venue.

Faced with the Mediator’s assessment and explanations and the enormous cost of County Court litigation is the only alternative outcome, both parties will find a way to agree. The Mediator will draw a simple heads of terms document which will be binding on the parties when it is dated and signed.

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