Lockdown tensions: Settling ongoing neighbour disputes during the pandemic
With many of us spending substantially more time at home, what were seemingly minor problems with neighbours might start becoming more of an issue than they were before. Behaviour that we have previously ignored or not had time to address can become irritating and under the general stress of the current situation, small annoyances can flare up into disputes.
Relationships with neighbours can be notoriously fraught. Living next to someone who annoys you (whether intentionally or not) can be incredibly difficult and over time people can start obsessing over what started out as a relatively minor issue.
Common causes of disputes with neighbours
Objections to noise from neighbours is one of the leading causes of disagreement. If one household lives quietly, while next door has loud music, an incessantly barking dog or recurring parties, it can push people to the limit of what they feel they can endure.
The first step is to try and discuss the problem politely and informally with your neighbour. Explain your point of view as calmly as you can and ask them if they could help to improve the situation in a mutually agreeable way.
If you don’t feel able to speak to them, write a polite letter, keeping a copy for your records. If nothing changes and other neighbours are also affected, they may be prepared to send a joint letter with you asking that the matter be addressed.
In the event that nothing changes, start keeping a record of the disturbances, to include times, dates and the duration of the noise. Excessive noise can be dealt with by the council, who should issue a noise abatement order, legally requiring the noise to stop. Failure to comply can result in a fine of up to £5,000.
If things still don’t improve (or get worse) you can consider a private action in nuisance. It would be sensible to take legal advice on the options at this stage as the requirements for such an action can be quite complex, usually requiring the involvement of an expert acoustic consultant.
The second major cause of disputes between neighbours is disagreement over boundaries. This can be over where they should be, their condition, whether work on them is agreed and who should pay for maintenance of fences and walls.
It is always advisable to speak to your neighbour before doing any work on the boundary between your properties. In some cases, the title deeds to your properties may stipulate that this should be done.
The legal title to your property should include details as to where the boundary lies, although the scale is often not sufficient to show exactly where a boundary should be on the ground. Often there is no plan at all, leaving both sides in the dark as to where the legal boundary might be.
The best way to deal with this is to try and come to an agreement with your neighbour over the boundary line. If you manage to do this, then it is advisable to have a properly detailed plan drawn up by a chartered surveyor and have a legal agreement drafted that both you and your neighbours can sign. This can then be registered against both of your properties at HM Land Registry, hopefully avoiding any misunderstanding or disagreement in the future, particularly in the event that either property is sold and new neighbours move in.
If you are not able to come to an agreement, then an expert property solicitor will be able to advise you on the next steps to take to establish your rights.
Trees and hedges
Trees, hedges and other plants growing out of a neighbour’s garden can be problematic. As well as encroaching on your garden, they may also cause damage or block out the light.
You are entitled to cut back any part of the tree or plant that overhangs your property. Nonetheless, it is advisable to ask your neighbour if they are happy for you to do this to try and keep relations cordial. You may only cut back as far as the boundary line and no further.
You can’t make any charge for the work, even if you hire a professional, and you are not entitled to go into your neighbour’s garden without their permission to carry out the work.
The neighbour who owns the tree is entitled to have any branches or part that is cut off returned to them, but again, speak to them about this if you can and don’t simply throw them over into their garden as this could inflame the situation.
If a tree causes damage to your property, you may be able to ask your neighbour to pay for the cost of repair. Damage caused by anything unforeseeable, such as a storm, is not included, however.
Debris from neighbouring trees that falls into your garden is not legally classed as a nuisance and therefore you will simply have to clear this up yourself.
While the rules may seem harsh if you are adversely affected, often it is better to try and deal with the situation without conflict.
Threats and antisocial behaviour
Antisocial behaviour can blight the lives of those affected if not dealt with quickly and effectively. As well as noise problems, this extends to litter, graffiti, vandalism, drug-taking, drinking on the street and threatening behaviour.
If you are unable to deal with the neighbours themselves, you should contact your local authority to make a formal complaint. You can also speak to the relevant person with your local police force, usually an anti-social behaviour co-ordinator.
Dealing with a neighbour dispute
The best way of resolving a dispute with a neighbour is always amicably. You may both continue to live side by side for many years and putting a disagreement behind you will mean you can do so without stress or annoyance.
If you decide to sell your property, you will be legally required to disclose disagreements to your buyers. If the disagreements have escalated, buyers will no doubt be put off purchasing your home, whereas if you can explain that a dispute has been settled amicably, they may see things in a more favourable light.
If the neighbouring property is owned by a landlord, whether this is a private individual, company or local authority, you should bring the dispute to their attention. They may be able to intervene or even give the tenant notice to leave if their behaviour warrants it.
Mediation is available to help with neighbour disputes if you are unable to reach an acceptable solution between yourselves.If this is not effective and you wish to explore and enforce your rights, you should seek expert legal help. Often, a solicitor’s letter will be the encouragement needed for a neighbour to modify their behaviour.
While the dispute is ongoing, you should keep a record of everything that happens, to include photos or video evidence. In the event that your disagreement results in litigation, this will form part of your case.
We have wide-ranging experience in property and commercial law, and were named as the ‘Commercial Disputes Specialists of the Year” in the Corporate Livewire Innovation & Excellence Awards 2020 as well as ‘Boutique Litigation Law Firm of the Year’ in both the 2019 and 2020 Global Awards by ACQ5.
If you would like to talk to one of our expert legal team about any queries you may have regarding matters of property law, neighbourly disputes or legal matters due to the pandemic, contact the author, James Beat, or call the team today on 020 3968 6030 and we’ll be happy to help.
The above information is for general guidance on your rights and responsibilities and is not legal advice. If you need more details on your rights or legal advice about what action to take, please contact a legal advisor.