Common Areas of Expensive Legal Dispute – Part Two
In our previous article on common areas of legal dispute, we considered the pitfalls of entering into boundary disputes. I suggested that on some occasions it is better to consider the biblical saying ‘Love thy neighbour’ rather than resort to expensive legal proceedings. In this article we are considering complaints of nuisance, intimidation and harassment. Surprisingly, the teachings of Jesus, provides us with a possible starting point to avoid these types of disputes, with his golden rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. It is not only Christianity that provides this simple ethical code; it appears in every other major religion. Unfortunately, despite its being a fairly simple ethical principle, it is very difficult to apply in practice.
The law in England and Wales tries to ensure just treatment, but it never seems to be the case that the legal response boils down to an answer that is as neat as the philosophical/religious one. Not only does the law have a civil offence to deal with nuisance, but there is legislation in place1 that sets out criminal offences covering the most serious incidents of nuisance, harassment and intimidation. So with laws in place, why is this still a difficult (and expensive) area in which to make a legal complaint? Let’s consider one of the most common nuisance complaints – noise. Do you enjoy music, have a pet or young children, or own a lawnmower or a washing machine? I expect you could answer yes to more than one of these questions, but you would not expect to be told you are a potential candidate for a nuisance complaint.
In theory, if you have a barking dog, own particularly noisy appliances, play your music too loudly, bang your doors or shout too often, then there is every chance that you could technically be creating a nuisance. A noise nuisance exists if it is frequent enough to disturb a person’s enjoyment of his or her home. This is very far from an adequate legal definition. There are other factors that will be taken into account, such as whether your behaviour is unreasonable or if someone is particularly sensitive to noise, but from the law’s point of view, getting answers to these questions can be expensive.
The simple problem is that the law has to perform a balancing act between the rights of one party to live in relative peace and those of another party to be able to get on with everyday living. As we saw in our previous article, resorting to the law should be a last resort because it is difficult and expensive and can poison for life your relationship with a neighbour. If you are experiencing any form of nuisance, I would recommend that you take the following steps:
1) The first thing I always suggest is for parties to talk to each other. This is not always easy, but often people are unaware that their behaviour is causing a problem. Obviously a complaint should be made politely, as an angry reaction might make a situation worse.
2) If this does not work, then start recording dates, times and the cause of the noise, as you will need some evidence that the other party’s behaviour is unreasonable.
3) The next step would be mediation, where an independent and impartial third party helps the individuals to discuss the problem and find a solution. It is surprising how one simple change can eliminate a problem entirely. Consider some of the following simple solutions:
- Keep music to a low volume at night.
- Ensure that burglar alarms have a cut-off device, or provide the names of a house-key holder before going on holiday.
- Don’t let dogs bark or whine for long periods, or seek professional help if an animal has a barking problem.
- Keep washing machines away from adjoining walls, or place them on carpet/rubber mats to reduce vibrations.
- Use lawnmowers or power tools at a reasonable time of day.
- Ensure that children are considerate when playing outside, especially if they are throwing/kicking balls against walls of neighbouring properties.
4) If mediation is unsuccessful, local authority councils can investigate noise complaints2 and will often have special teams of environmental health officers who can enforce injunctions.
5) Finally, if your local authority cannot or will not help, then you can approach the Magistrates’ Court directly and seek an order.
The law in this area is far from perfect. I always encourage my clients to try and find informal answers; the results of litigation, even when successful, rarely leave anyone feeling happy.