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When falling out with your neighbours leads to money down the drain – literally!

A row over a £4,000 bill for a blocked drain has left next-door neighbours facing court legal costs of more than £300,00O.

Terry Court, 57, and her neighbours John, 60, and Bernadette Van Dijk, 47, disputed who was to blame for flooding in the back yard of the Van Dijks’ home in York, North Yorkshire.

They claimed work Mrs Court had done in 2007 effectively blocked off their access to the private sewer between their homes – and they then found rainwater flooding into their back yard.

But it was another three years before it was fixed, sparking a five-year legal battle which has run up legal fees topping £300,000 for a case which could have settled for just over £4,000.

Finally ruling in Mrs Court’s favour at the Court of Appeal in London recently, Lord Justice Floyd said: “It is a regrettable feature of this case that the litigation continues only because of the enormous sums in costs which are at stake.

“The adjective ‘disproportionate’ is wholly inadequate to describe the combined expenditure on resolving the question of who pays a £4,000 bill.”

Mediate before issuing proceedings, urges judge

The case ended up in court despite another High Court judge strongly urging warring neighbours to try to sort out their problems through mediation rather than battling it out at vast expense in the courts.

Mr Justice Norris made his comments – which mean neighbours at loggerheads could now be ordered to at least have a go at mediation – after hearing the case of two sets of neighbours who couldn’t agree whether the gates to their shared driveway in Formby, Lancashire should be kept open or shut.

Although they might have resolved their differences by agreeing to install remote-controlled electric gates at a cost of around £5,000 they instead chose to go to court, running up legal costs bills which could well reach six figures.

Being sensible

Mr Justice Norris said he was “rather surprised” that the case, which revolved around issues of security and access, had ever come to court and observed gravely that, whatever the outcome of the dispute, blighted neighbourly relations meant that “even the victor is not the winner”.

He added: “Sensible neighbours would have sat round a table and worked out either a regime for closing the gates at agreed hours or the installation of remotely operated electric gates, which might have cost £5,000”.

Compulsory Mediation?

Whilst adding his voice to the growing number of judges who have called for mediation in neighbour disputes, he also suggested it might be time for the courts to help sort things out by standard direction. This could require the Court proceedings to be stayed for a couple of months in order for the parties to attempt mediation.

He said: “In boundary and neighbour disputes the opportunities are not being taken and the warnings are not being heeded, and those embroiled in them need saving from themselves.

“The Court cannot oblige truly unwilling parties to submit their disputes to mediation: but I do not see why, in the notorious case of boundary and neighbour disputes, directing the parties to take (over a short defined period) all reasonable steps to resolve the dispute by mediation before preparing for trial should be regarded as an unacceptable obstruction on the right of access to justice.”

Why going to court is so inadvisable

  • A couple who pulled down a neighbour’s fence during a boundary dispute which lasted years were ordered to pay massive legal costs which meant they had to sell their home after pursuing the claim to the High Court;
  • One boundary dispute in Hertfordshire was started by planners who used a thick pen to mark out boundaries on a small-scale plan. The area was just 60cm wide yet the legal costs ran to £400,000;
  • In Cheltenham, two neighbours warred over a six metre square patch of land for two years. The court costs ended up soaring to £160,000;
  • One boundary dispute over a driveway turned nasty when a farmer was accused of firing a shot at his neighbour who had chased a runaway horse that had strayed on to his property. It turned out the shot had actually been fired from a booby trap, rather than a gun, but not before police helicopters and armed officers descended on to the property.

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