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Keeping warring neighbours in their place – new law to revolutionise boundary disputes

Boundary disputes between embittered neighbours often make the news not least because of the disproportionate time and expense spent on them - the owners of a £600,000 house were recently ordered to give it to the family next door to meet the costs of a lost legal battle waged over just three tiny inches of land.

It seems that far too often emotions get in the way of common sense with stress levels rising and tempers flaring as both parties refuse to back down for fear of losing face and so the argument rolls on resolutely to the courts.

Now the Government is trying to stem this tide of costly litigation with a new private members bill - The Property Boundaries (Resolution of Disputes) Bill - currently on its second reading in the House of Lords.

What does this new bill propose?

The aim of the new bill is to revolutionise the way boundary disputes are tackled and concluded in a bid to reduce the burden on courts and tribunals and to provide an alternative dispute resolution service based on expert surveying guidance.

Based on procedures very similar to those used under the Party Wall etc Act 1996, a claimant will only be able to claim costs incurred to resolve a boundary dispute when the procedures of the proposed new bill have been followed to the letter.

The outline of these procedures is as follows:

  1. The owner first obtains a report with a plan showing their view on the boundary/right of way and gives this to the neighbour with whom there is an issue;
  2. If there is no response from the neighbour, there is deemed to be a dispute;
  3. At this point, a surveyor is instructed, either one each or jointly (in which case the costs would be split, a process which is actively encouraged to reduce costs and heighten transparency);
  4. If there are two surveyors, they consider each other's report and if agreement can't be reached, a third is called in;
  5. This third surveyor's findings are conclusive and can only be challenged if the opposing party appeals to the High Court within 28 days;
  6. The owner of the land must, within 28 days, submit the award to the Land Registry which will then note the decision on both titles.

Additional new voluntary code

Although The Property Boundaries (Resolution of Disputes) Bill is making rather slow process through parliament with little real chance of it becoming law before the next election, senior members of the legal and surveying professions have tried to move things along in the meantime by writing and issuing their own protocol for dealing with boundary disputes.

The Boundary Disputes Protocol - also known as A Protocol for Disputes between Neighbours about the Location of their Boundary - is a voluntary code which outlines a process whereby neighbours exchange information according to a set timescale in a bid to speed things up, try to avoid court by looking at alternative methods of resolution such as negotiation and mediation and thus keep costs to a minimum.

Save neighbours from themselves

Judges involved in sorting out these types of dispute have long been calling for warring neighbours to try to resolve their problems through mediation rather than battling it out at vast expense in the courts.

And last year Mr Justice Norris went one step further by suggesting it might be time for the courts to help by standard direction including requiring court proceedings to be stayed for a couple of months in order for the parties involved 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."

Is it really worth fighting over?

See what else we have written on this issue:

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

Fallen out with your neighbour? Mediate before issuing proceedings, urges judge

For more information about boundary disputes, contact Wards Solicitors' James Murray.

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