Common Areas of Expensive Legal Dispute – Part One
It is not often that I resort to the Bible to advise clients, but where disputes with neighbours are concerned this can be the best advice. What may seem to be a trivial issue can often explode into a case of biblical proportions. In this article we will consider one of the most common areas of friction between neighbours, which involves disagreements about boundaries.
Consider this quote from an Appeal Court judge, Lord Justice Ward, reported in April 2009:
“The lesson is never learned that those who fight for their principles frequently end up paying for them…Each of the parties have spent in the region of £40,000 in bringing their case to this court, far more than the land in dispute could ever be worth.”
The ‘land in dispute’ was just 2 metres, but the parties clearly lost all sense of proportion. Both parties’ solicitors must have warned them that an argument over a piece of land worth a few thousand pounds might cost tens of thousands of pounds in legal costs. How did this happen and why is it so common?
You will not be surprised to learn that the first place to look when trying to resolve a boundary dispute will be the title deeds for each property. When dealing with registered land you will have the property register (folio) and a title plan (forming part of the Title Information Document – TID). These documents give proof of ownership. With a title plan based on a large-scale Ordinance Survey (OS) map (1:1250 in urban areas), you would be forgiven for assuming that once these are checked that should be the end of a dispute. The reality is that the TID is not always exact. Boundary descriptions can often be poor, and if the dimensions are given they are often inaccurate unless they have been measured by a surveyor. Where the plan is concerned this is usually based on an OS map, but it is not unheard of for these to be inaccurate. Further problems can occur if you buy a house in an estate. In these cases the conveyancing plans may be based on the original developer’s layout plans, which could have been distorted, as construction of things like roads may have taken slightly different routes.
If examination of the title deeds does not resolve a dispute, then you need to consider the legal presumptions. There are presumptions relating to fences, party walls, flats, hedges, ditches, roadways, rivers, lakes and the seashore. We will only consider the first three, as these apply to the vast majority of properties. Where a fence forms a boundary and there are posts on one side, it is presumed that the fence belongs to the owner of the ‘post-side’ house. If a party wall divides semi-detached or terraced houses there is an assumption that ownership is divided down the middle (maintenance should be a joint expense). Where a flat is concerned it is normally taken to include any external walls, even if the landlord has a legal obligation to repair the exterior.
These are two obvious steps that can be taken if you are involved in a boundary dispute. The real problem is that once both of the involved parties have decided that they are ‘right’, then all sense and reason disappears. If for example a fence falls down, the plans may indicate that your neighbour is responsible for it (it is normal that plans are marked with a ‘T’ where the top of the T faces the property of the person who owns the fence). The question that should be asked is how much is it worth to avoid a falling out with one’s neighbour? Is it better to glare at someone for months on end rather than pay for part or even all of a new fence? If my neighbour reluctantly pays for the fence, should I be surprised if the new fence is particularly ugly on my side? In a worst-case scenario, will it be necessary to complain that the re-built fence has been moved?
To answer any of these questions could cost a lot of money if you have to resort to the legal system. Winning at all costs is never the right answer, but all too often parties take these disputes personally. I would not really suggest to a client that they need to go as far as literally loving their neighbour. However, I would recommend that a client consider the 17th century proverb that ‘good fences make good neighbours’ before resorting to legal proceedings. In our next article on common legal disputes we will consider complaints of nuisance, intimidation and harassment and how these can be resolved.