Disputes between neighbours and neighbouring households are not uncommon. Where people live close together there is always scope for friction and disputes. Clashes of lifestyles where people are from different age groups, or come from different cultural backgrounds, or have different working or sleeping patterns can easily give rise to arguments.Differences of view over the location, maintenance or use of boundaries, the responsibility for common areas, problems of litter, noise and the behaviour of children can all lead to disputes which can become long running and be difficult to resolve. Through a lack of consideration on the one hand, or of tolerance on the other, incidents which are apparently minor in themselves can create significant and apparently intractable problems between neighbours.
Some neighbourhoods have local associations who might be able to resolve disputes by mediation.
If the neighbour is a tenant, the landlord should be contacted and advised of the problem. In many cases, and especially if the Landlord is a Local Authority or Housing Association, the behaviour will be a breach of the neighbour’s tenancy agreement, which could provide grounds for the landlord to seek possession.
Where there is a breach of the peace or assault the police may become involved.
In cases where neighbours may be breaching public health or pollution laws, the local authority environmental health department can be approached. The local planning department has the power to investigate if there has been a breach of planning control. The authority can issue an enforcement notice if the neighbour has carried out building work without permission or is using the land for an unauthorised purpose.
A letter from a solicitor may be helpful in making a neighbour realise that you are serious about your complaint. It may be particularly effective in making tenants realise that the next stage might be eviction by their landlord. It may also be necessary when, for example, there is genuine disagreement as to who is responsible. Although a particular dispute may be resolved successfully through the courts, the relationship between neighbours will be damaged and it is unlikely that they will be able to continue living near each other. It is also an extremely expensive course of action to take unless the complainant is eligible for publicly-funded legal services.
Common neighbour disputes
Access to a neighbour’s land for repairs. There may be a right of entry onto your neighbour’s property for the purposes of inspection and repair to your property in your property’s title deeds. If there is no such right, or no agreement can be reached, the law allows you as the person wishing to carry out repairs to apply to the county court for an access order allowing you to enter your neighbour’s land for the specified purpose and carry out the repairs.
There are often amenities shared between two or more properties, for example, drains. pipes, shared drives or the roof of a block of flats. Responsibility for maintaining shared amenities and rights to use them, for example, putting up an aerial on a shared chimney, are usually outlined in the property’s title deeds.
Where such rights [known as easements] are not specifically granted, they may arise by prescriptive use. Such is long, continuous and unchallenged use (usually 20 years). A right to use, for example, a pipe through a neighbour’s property implies a right to go on that neighbour’s property to undertake repairs, although any damage incurred to that property must be made good.
Where there is a shared amenity which is in need of repair the first step is to find out who is responsible for repairs. However, title deeds may not always provide clear evidence and, in this case, it is probably best to settle in advance that the costs will be shared between owners.
Boundaries, fences and walls
Establishing the boundaries and their ownership If a dispute arises between neighbours about the boundary between their properties, it will be necessary to establish who owns the disputed land. The primary evidence will be contained in the title deeds. Clear evidence of this kind is normally conclusive. However, the boundaries between properties can differ from those described in the title documents or lease in certain circumstances. The most common are where they have been changed by agreement or by encroachment (occupation without permission). It will then be necessary to either resolve by negotiation, or obtain evidence of the ownership of the disputed land.
Generally, as a property owner you do not have to erect and maintain any fence, or wall, around your property. Exceptions include where:
• There is a clause in the title documents or lease
• The property is next to a street and may cause danger
• The land is used for dangerous purposes, for example, storing chemicals
• A barrier is necessary to prevent animals, other than domestic pets, from straying. Responsibility for repair rests with the owner. As a property owner you do not have to repair your barrier unless the title documents or lease contains such obligations. However, if the barrier causes damage or injury, you will be liable to pay compensation. Good repair is particularly important for fences next to a public thoroughfare.
There are special rules covering structural work to walls which stand across the boundary of land belonging to different owners, or which are used by two or more owners to separate buildings. The owner must notify neighbours about any work they intend to carry out. These rules allow for the agreement or objection to any work within certain time limits, and compensation and temporary protection for buildings and property. If there is no agreement an independent surveyor can be appointed to decide what work can be done, and how and when
Noisy children in themselves are not a ‘nuisance’. If someone is disturbed by a neighbour’s children, for example, a shift worker who wants to sleep during the day, the only real solution is a conciliatory approach to the neighbour.
Damage done by children. If a neighbour’s child causes damage to a property, a conciliatory approach to settle the matter is probably the best solution. Legally, the child can be sued for damages if they are old enough to know what they were doing. In practice, this is unrealistic since few courts would look favourably on such an action, and a child is unlikely to have any money to pay for damages. However, the parents of the child may be liable for negligence and damages if they have failed to exercise the control that would be expected of a parent given the child’s age. Balls and ball games If a child throws a ball into a neighbour’s property, the neighbour should either hand it back or allow it to be collected. However, as it is a trespass for the ball to cross the neighbour’s boundary, even if it was unintentional, the neighbour would be entitled to financial compensation if any damage has been caused.
Dealing with noisy neighbours. As a first step, you should talk to your neighbour making the noise and ask them to reduce the noise. If the noise is not reduced and your neighbour is a tenant, it may be worth contacting your neighbour’s landlord. If the problem persists it is useful to keep a record/diary of the disturbances which can be used as evidence in any future action.
Local authorities have extensive powers to deal with noise nuisances. You can ask the Environmental Health Officer to investigate the noise. They are able to measure the level of noise and to give an expert opinion on how it rates as a noise nuisance. Local authorities have powers to seize noise-making equipment. If the EHO considers there is a noise nuisance and has been unable to resolve the matter by discussion, the authority can then serve a notice on the person causing the noise, or on the owner or occupier of the property. If the person causing the noise does not comply with the notice, the local authority can prosecute them. The local authority can also apply for an injunction.
Unless there are local parking restrictions giving a right to a particular space, residents do not have automatic rights to a parking space on a public road. However, they do have a right of access to their drive. If there is a shared drive, then each person has a right of access and neither should block the drive.
Trees and overhanging branches
If a neighbour’s tree hangs over an adjoining property, the tree owner should be asked to trim back the tree. If this is not done, the complainant has the right to trim the tree back to the boundary line Dangerous trees Local authorities have powers to deal with trees on private property which are in a dangerous condition. A local authority can:-
• Make any tree safe, if asked to do so by the owner of the land on which the tree stands. The local authority will recover the costs of doing this from the owner;
• Make a tree safe on someone else’s land, if asked to do so by a neighbour whose property is threatened by the tree and the owner of the land on which the tree stands is not known;
• Serve a notice on someone who has a tree in a dangerous condition which is threatening to damage the property of a neighbour and that neighbour asks the local authority to take action. The owner of the tree must comply with the notice. If they do not, the local authority will do the necessary work and recover the costs from the owner. The owner can appeal to the county court against the notice.
If the roots of a neighbour’s tree spread into a property, they can be removed using the least damaging method available, unless there is a tree preservation order. If a neighbour has to enter the tree owner’s property to do this, they must give reasonable notice. The neighbour may also wish to consult their insurers, if there is a possibility that their property may be damaged by the roots. If the roots have already caused damage, the tree owner is liable to pay compensation but it must be shown that the tree owner knew, or ought to have known, of the danger.