Neighbour Disputes and Disagreements

It is not possible to provide a standard set of guidelines for dealing with every neighbour problem. This is because the problems are so varied and the solution to any particular dispute will depend on the individual circumstances of the case.

The information we have provided is divided into two parts;-

  • common neighbour disputes  which  describes some common disputes and indicates which of the alternative courses of action would be most suitable in each case
  • how to deal with a neighbour dispute and outlines the range of actions that may need to be taken to resolve a neighbour dispute.

Common Neighbour Disputes:

Access to a neighbour's land for repairs

If you want to carry out repairs to property or land you may need to have access to your neighbouring property or land in order to carry out these repairs.

There may be a right of entry specifically for the purposes of inspection or repair in the property's legal documents. 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 to carry out the repairs. There is a fee for the application.

If you wish to apply for an access order you should consult an experienced adviser, or a solicitor.

Amenities which are shared:

Who is responsible

There may be amenities shared between two or more properties, for example, drains and pipes, shared drives or the roof of a block of flats. Responsibility for maintaining them and rights to use them, for example, putting up an aerial on a shared chimney, are usually outlined in the property's legal documents. The legal documents may give you as a property owner rights over your neighbour's property. Sometimes they are not included in the legal documents but have arisen out of 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. If access is refused, an application can be made to a county court for an access order.

Repairs:

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, the legal documents 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.

The next stage will probably be to get a surveyor or architect to inspect and report on the part of the property requiring repairs. Estimates will have to be sought and finally a contract made with builders. It is essential that at each stage when a cost is incurred the household initiating the repairs has the consent of the other parties responsible.

If some or all of the property involved is rented, the landlord may be liable for repairs.

Boundaries, fences and walls:

Establishing the boundaries and 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 legal documents. 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).

For more information about boundary disputes, see the website of RICS at: (New window) www.rics.org. RICS also operates a boundary disputes helpline. They can put you in touch with a chartered surveyor who can give you 30 minutes free advice. The helpline number is: 0870 333 1600.

If you think that the boundaries are not defined in the title document or lease, or that the boundaries have been changed by agreement or encroachment, you will probably need to get legal advice from a solicitor. However, you may also wish to try mediation first as a way of resolving your dispute with your neighbour.  

Duty to erect a barrier:

Generally, as a property owner you do not have to erect and maintain any type of barrier, for example, a fence, wall, trellis or railing, around your property. Some of the 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.

Who can use or repair a barrier:

In order to decide who can use and repair a barrier, it is first necessary to establish who owns it. The rules for working out ownership are the same as for other boundaries. In other words, the legal documents may specify who owns the fence, or you may have evidence that it belongs to you.

If the barrier belongs to one owner, they can use it as they wish, without the neighbour's consent, providing it is safe. The neighbour has no rights over the barrier. For example, they could not use it to support trailing plants without the owner's permission. If a fence is jointly owned, each neighbour can use it for support, provided neither makes it unsafe. Any repairs should be financed jointly.

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, your neighbour could take you to court for compensation.

If as a property owner you have a barrier next to the street, this should be kept in good repair to prevent it becoming a nuisance or danger to people using the street. If a passer-by is injured by the barrier, for example, if it has barbed wire, or falls down on someone in the street, that person can take you to court for compensation.

Party walls:

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. For more information about party walls, see the website of RICS at: (New window) www.rics.org. RICS also operate a party walls helpline. They can put you in touch with a chartered surveyor who can give you 30 minutes free advice. The helpline number is: 0870 333 1600.

Planning restrictions on barriers:

Planning permission is not generally needed before erecting a fence or wall, provided it is no more than one metre in height if next to a highway, or two metres elsewhere. If you wish to exceed these limits, you will need to get planning permission from the local authority. There are no planning restrictions on the height of hedges.

Children:

Noisy children

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 caused 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 much money to pay any damages. However, the parents of the child may be liable for negligence and damages if they have trusted the child with something dangerous that was beyond their capability to use responsibly, for example, an air gun. The parents may also be liable 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.

Noise:

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 (EHO) 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.

Local authority tenants who suffer noise nuisance can contact the Local Government Ombudsman, who may be able to recommend compensation if the local authority has failed in one of its duties. Tenants of housing associations and other social landlords (and of some private landlords) can contact the Independent Housing Ombudsman.

Noise in the neighbourhood:

Loudspeakers (except for the police, ambulance and fire brigade) must not be used in the streets between 9.00pm and 8.00am. It is illegal to use loudspeakers in the street at any hour for advertising, entertainment, trade or business. There is an exemption from this rule for vehicles which sell food (such as ice cream), but loudspeakers or chimes on these vehicles may only be used between the hours of noon and 7.00pm in such a way as not to annoy people nearby. Any complaints about noise from loudspeakers or chimes should be made to the police or to the environmental health department of the local authority.

All local authorities have the power to deal with noise nuisance from vehicle alarms and other street noise, for example, music. This includes the power to break into the vehicle and silence the alarm if it is creating a nuisance.

The local authority also has the power to deal immediately with noise coming from licensed premises at night (between 11pm and 7am). First of all, it will formally warn the person responsible for the noise and then if they don't stop within the time set out in the warning (usually ten minutes), the local authority can impose a fixed penalty fine on them or prosecute them. The local authority can also seize the equipment making the noise.

Burglar alarms:

A local authority has the power to enter a building and silence an alarm, where the alarm has been operating non-stop for 20 minutes or on and off for an hour and is causing a noise nuisance. A local authority officer can only enter a building by force with a warrant. The authority can recover the cost of silencing the alarm from the occupier of the premises. A local authority can also make an area an 'alarm notification area'. This means that the owner or occupier of every building in the area which has an alarm must have a key holder and must give their contact details to the local authority. The local authority can ask the key holder to switch off the alarm. If you live in an alarm notification area, it is a criminal offence not to stick to these rules. Your local authority should put a notice in the paper and put a copy through your door if they plan to introduce these rules in your area.

Environmental Protection UK can provide general advice on noise. It also produces an excellent series of leaflets on noise pollution. The address is:

44 Grand Parade Brighton BN2 9QA Tel: 01273 878770 Fax: 01273 606626 Email: admin@environmental-protection.org.uk Website: (New window) www.environmental-protection.org.uk

Parking space:

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. The local authority and the police have wide powers to remove vehicles that are illegally parked, causing an obstruction on the highway or which are abandoned.

Trees:

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 (but see Tree preservation orders below) although any branches and/or fruit removed belong to the tree's owner and should be offered back to the owner or disposed of with the owner's consent.

An overhanging tree may also be a danger. For example, most parts of a yew tree are poisonous. If any damage or injury is caused, the tree owner will be liable to pay compensation if a person affected brings a claim for damages.

Dangerous trees:

In England and Wales, local authorities have powers to deal with trees on private property which are on the point of causing damage. A local authority can:-

  • make the tree safe, if it is on the point of causing damage and are 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 in imminent danger from 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 which is on the point of causing damage to 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 you want the local authority to take action, you will need to find out which department deals with dangerous trees as this varies from one local authority to another. You can then ask this department to check the condition of the tree.

It is up to the local authority to decide if the tree is on the point of causing damage. If they consider it's not on the point of causing damage, they don't have to take any action. You could also think about going to mediation or, as a last resort, taking legal action against your neighbour.

Roots:

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 on it - see below. 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.

Tree preservation orders:

If you wish to prevent a tree being lopped by your neighbour, you could contact the local authority to see if they will place a tree preservation order on it. All trees in an area designated as a Conservation Area are automatically protected.

Hedges:

If a neighbour's hedge is tall and blocks out light, the person affected by the nuisance can prune the roots or branches. However, no one should attempt to reduce the height of a hedge without obtaining advice from a solicitor. In addition, some hedgerows are protected by law.

In England and Wales you have the right to complain to the local authority if your residential property is affected by a neighbour's evergreen or semi-evergreen hedge which is more than two metres high. This may result in your neighbour having to reduce the height of their hedge. You must try to resolve the complaint with your neighbour before going to the local authority, and you may be charged a substantial fee before the local authority will consider the complaint. Either you or your neighbour can appeal against the local authority's decision.

Hedgeline is an organisation which can give advice to victims of hedge nuisance in England and Wales who are members of the organisation. Hedgeline has a useful website at: (New window) www.hedgeline.org.

How to deal with a neighbour dispute:

Approach the neighbour

A complaint should first be made to the neighbour. If it seems that one or both parties will be unable to keep their temper during such a meeting, it may be advisable to write.

Sometimes a neighbour may be made to see that their behaviour is anti-social if representations come from a group of neighbours.

If an initial approach to the neighbour has failed, there may be local mediators who are able to help.

To search for a mediator in your area who could help, visit the Directory of UK Mediation on the ADRNow website at: (New window) www.adrnow.org.uk.

For more information on what mediation is and to find a mediator in your area who could help, visit the ADRNow website at (New window) www.adrnow.org.uk.

Contact the landlord:

If the offending neighbour is a tenant and refuses to co-operate when approached directly, it may be appropriate to contact the landlord.

Who is the landlord:

If the property is owned by the local authority, the authority's housing department  should be approached. It may be prepared to contact the offending neighbour to help resolve the problem.

If the property is owned or run by a housing association, it may have a housing officer, housing assistant employed by a housing association who deals with disagreements between tenants.

If you think discrimination is involved in a neighbour dispute, make sure your landlord knows this – see under heading Abusive neighbour disputes and discrimination.

A private landlord can apply for possession on the grounds that a tenant has been a nuisance to neighbours or committed an offence such as racially motivated attacks. If it is possible to find out who the landlord is, they might be prepared to talk to the tenant about the problem. If you think discrimination is involved, make sure your landlord knows this.

Call the police:

The police can be called if it is possible that a criminal offence is being committed. Common offences in the case of neighbour disputes are breach of the peace, assault or harassment because of your race or sex. If you think racial or sexual harassment is involved in your neighbour dispute, make sure the police know this – see under heading Abusive neighbour disputes and discrimination.

Contact the environmental health department:

In cases where neighbours may be breaching public health or pollution laws, the local authority environmental health department can be approached.

An environmental health officer will usually contact the neighbour and attempt to resolve the matter informally. If this fails, a notice may be served on the neighbour, requiring the abatement of the nuisance. This means they are required to stop, or deal with, the nuisance.

Contact the Planning Department:

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.

Consult a solicitor or take court action:

Solicitor's letter

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.

Taking court action:

Although a particular dispute may be resolved successfully through the courts, the relationship between neighbours may be damaged. It is also an extremely expensive course of action to take unless the complainant is eligible for legal aid.

If you are thinking of taking court action you should consult an experienced adviser or a Solicitor.

Abusive Neighbour Disputes and Discrimination:

Some behaviour by neighbours could amount to discrimination and may be against the law.

For example, you may have a problem with your neighbours because they are behaving in a racist way. If you have been attacked because of your race, this is called a 'racially motivated attack'. The person who attacked you may have committed a criminal offence. It is also a criminal offence to attack someone because of their religion. This is called a 'religiously motivated attack'.

Racially or religiously motivated attacks can include verbal abuse or threats and abusive slogans painted on a wall or building.

If your neighbours are discriminating against you, you might be able to:

  • take action against them for antisocial behaviour
  • if you're being harassed or victimised, report them to the police
  • if you're being harassed or victimised, take them to court
  • report them to your local authority. The local authority may be able to help even if your neighbours are not local authority tenants.

If your neighbours are discriminating against you in any way, you should get help from an experienced adviser or a Solicitor. They will be able to advise you about the best course of action to take in your circumstances.

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