The need for neighbour disputes law is obvious: the activities one landowner may interfere with the activities of another. Boundary disputes may occur because the exact position of the boundary marker (offence, hedge, or wall may be challenged. Or there may be a dispute about which landowner is responsible for maintaining the boundary marker. For further details, please see our Background note on boundary law. For one landowner to go on to their neighbour’s land without permission will be a trespass, as will be depositing rubbish (or anything else) on their land without permission. Parking cars on neighbouring land without permission will be in this category.
Neighbour disputes: nuisance
In this context, “nuisance” is a legal term for activities which interfere with the use and enjoyment of land. This can be noise, smoke, fumes, smells, light, heat, water, or vibration as from machinery. Whether these will amount to the legal wrongs will, according to neighbour disputes law, depend very much upon the circumstances and the degree of interference. In a busy city centre, a certain amount of noise is to be expected. Things should be much quieter in small country villages. A landowner suffering from these forms of interference with their comfort will need to show that it is unreasonable in all the circumstances.
Brief outbursts of noise, say, or smoke from a bonfire, may not amount to a legal nuisance. Persistent noise or smoke may do so. If the landowner responsible is deliberately causing trouble, this will be relevant to the question of reasonableness. (But it will be no defence if the landowner was somehow unaware of the problems they were was causing for their neighbour.)
Branches encroaching over the boundary, and tree roots encroaching beneath it, also count as nuisances for legal purposes. Tree roots can be the greater problem, since their presence may not be detected until they have caused significant damage to buildings. For more, please see our Background note on trees. Interference with private rights of way is also regarded by the law as a nuisance, for which legal action can be taken. Driveways shared by two or more houses are often a source of problems: a common arrangement is for ownership of the driveway to be attached to one house, while the other house has rights of way over the driveway and possibly also the right to park on it.
An injunction, that is, an order by the court to do or stop doing something, is a powerful remedy because failing to obey the court’s order is a contempt of court for which the person concerned may be fined or sent to prison. It applies to nuisances and to other breaches of the law. It is a discretionary remedy: an injunction will not follow automatically just because someone has proved their case. “Damages” (compensation) can be awarded in addition to, but also instead of, an injunction; though this may well disappoint the landowner concerned, whose priority is for the antisocial behaviour to stop, not to be compensated for its effect in the past and the future. (For more on injunctions please see our Background note on restrictive covenants.)
The Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 contained new provisions to deal with high hedges. For these purposes a high hedge is one which is a barrier to light or access, formed wholly or mainly of evergreens, and more than 2 metres high. If the problem cannot be resolved by the landowners concerned, the local authority can intervene and if necessary serve a “Remedial notice” requiring the hedge to be reduced, though not to less than 2 metres in height. Failure to comply is an offence, for which the landowner concerned can be fined.
Neighbour disputes: privacy and harassment
Neighbours may gain information about each others’ private lives; perhaps, for example, sexual information or information about health and medical conditions. If a dispute occurs, they may be tempted to make some wrongful use of that information, exert pressure or take revenge.. The law can intervene, granting an injunction to prevent disclosure, or compensation after disclosure. Legal action is also possible under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. Harassment for these purposes requires a “course of conduct”, not just a single occasion. Harassment is not defined comprehensively by the Act, but includes alarming someone, or causing them distress. Harassment is both a crimninal offence and a civil wrong and is this an important aspect of neighbour disputes law.
CCTV is being increasingly common to protect people’s homes. The Information Commissioner publishes detailed guidance on the data protection implications of CCTV, stressing that if people capture images beyond the boundaries of their own properties, they will be subject to the data protection legislation. There will be a need to put up signs, warning people that CCTV footage is being recorded, and making sure that CCTV records are deleted when they are no longer needed.
Help from Property Law Advice
For the sorts of issues which arise in practice, and on which we can offer advice, please see our Neighbour disputes page. If you’d like a quick response, to see whether we can help, please see our Initial enquiry page.