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What are common neighbour disputes?

Nuisances

Many neighbour complaints actually amount to legal nuisances. These might either be common law nuisances or statutory nuisances. Either way, a nuisance is a complaint that materially interferes with a person’s enjoyment of their property.

Common law nuisances can either be private if they are causing harm to people or damaging property. Or, a neighbour could also be causing a public nuisance if they are affecting a large number of people. Legal action against a common law nuisance can only be taken privately and not by any local authority.

Legal action can be taken by local authorities for statutory nuisances. A nuisance is only statutory if it has been specifically defined as capable of being such by the Environmental Protection Act 1990. Examples of statutory nuisances include noise, smoke or smells, piles of rubbish, leaks, or a wasp nest in your neighbour’s garden. For a nuisance to be statutory it must also either be:

  • harmful to health or likely to be harmful to health, or

  • unreasonably and substantially interfere with the use or enjoyment of a property or the comfort or quality of life of a group of people

If you need further advice on whether or not the nuisance your neighbour is causing is statutory, Ask a lawyer.

Once a local authority has established that a statutory nuisance exists, they must serve an abatement notice on the person responsible. For more information, read Statutory nuisance.

Isolated acts will rarely be considered a nuisance. The problem must normally be regular and continuous.

Nuisance can only be established if there is proper interference with comfort with regards to normal standards. Nuisance cannot be established because an individual is unusually sensitive to the particular issue (eg noise or smells).

Neighbourhood character will be taken into account when deciding whether or not there has been a nuisance. What might be a nuisance in a town may not be in the country and vice versa. For example, agricultural smells in the countryside will not be a nuisance unless they are excessive.

Visual eyesores such as overgrown gardens are unlikely to be statutory nuisances. 

If your neighbour is a trader or a business they will often have a defence if they have employed the best practical means (BPM) to minimise the nuisance.

Noise

A common complaint raised by people is to do with noise. Noise complaints can vary from loud music to excessive or loud barking from a dog. Some noises are unavoidable, however, they can become unbearable and an ongoing problem. It's best to informally speak to your neighbour asking them to reduce the noise or control it. If your neighbour is a tenant, you could also contact their landlord to deal with the situation. Bear in mind that, although you have a right to peacefully enjoy your property, there is no right to total silence.

If the excessive noise persists it may be a good idea to keep a written diary of the disturbances or record the noise which will give you evidence in the future. Noise can also be a statutory nuisance, so you can also make a complaint to the local authorities who have extensive powers and are required to investigate any problem relating to noise nuisances. They will appoint an Environmental Health Officer (EHO) to investigate the noise and objectively give an expert opinion on it. If they decide the noise is a statutory nuisance (ie the noise unreasonably and substantially interferes with the use or enjoyment of a home or other premises or injure health or be likely to injure health) they can make an order requiring that the owner ceases the noise or controls it (ie an abatement notice). If the offending neighbour doesn't obey the order, fines and penalties may be imposed. This is only the case if the noise occurs either at premises or is caused by vehicles, machinery, or equipment in the street, for example, noise from burglar alarms and car radios. If the noise is due to antisocial behaviour or a disturbance of the peace, this is instead a matter for the police. The police can visit your neighbour and issue fines if the person responsible for the noise hasn’t stopped the noise after being asked to. The police also have specific powers to deal with excessive noise and specific rules are imposed. For example, in Scotland, loudspeakers (except those used by the police, fire and ambulance services) shouldn’t be used on the street at night.

Note that, to amount to a statutory nuisance, the noise from your neighbour must be excessive and substantially affect you, for example, by badly disturbing your sleep.

Trees and hedges

Overhanging trees are another common reason for neighbour disputes. If a neighbour's tree overhangs into a neighbouring property, the tree owner can be asked to trim back the tree. If this is not done then the person complaining of the overhanging tree has the right to trim back the tree to the boundary line, ie only the bits on their side of the boundary. However, if you live in a conservation area or the trees are protected by a tree preservation order, you'll need to ask your local council's permission to trim or cut the trees. You should informally talk to your neighbour to let them know of your intentions to trim back the tree branches. The tree branches and foliage should also be returned to your neighbour or disposed of properly with their consent.

Tall hedges have become increasingly prevalent due to people wanting more privacy from their neighbours. However, hedges generally can't be more than 2 metres tall or affect your enjoyment of your home or garden (ie because they're blocking the light). You can ask your local council for a complaint form but you might have to pay a fee for the council to consider your complaint.

Unless they are a source of danger, overgrown or unsightly gardens do not constitute a nuisance.

In Scotland, you don’t have a right to take any height off your neighbour’s tree or hedge, even if it’s blocking daylight. You can cut back roots and branches that are overhanging into your property, but you should discuss this first. If you cut back a tree too far without permission, this could be a criminal offence. The tree’s owner does have a legal responsibility to ensure it doesn’t damage your property, including your garden, drive, and fences. Initially, try and negotiate with your neighbour and resolve the issue; if the problem persists, ask the local authority to help. The council will visit your home to assess the hedge and may issue a ‘high hedge notice’ to your neighbour requiring them to trim it.

Dangerous and non-native weeds

The encroachment of Japanese knotweed has recently been found to be a common law nuisance. Knotweed can damage concrete foundations and other building structures. Merely the presence of knotweed on a neighbour’s property is capable of being a nuisance as long as the amount present is more than trivial. There is no need for you to show that your neighbour’s knotweed actually causes any risk to structures on your land or has increased the difficulty of developing your land.

This development might open the door for other environmental contaminants which, despite being treated, still contaminate neighbour’s land.

In Scotland, it is against the law to let non-native plants such as hogweed and Japanese knotweed spread into the wild. In some cases, your local council might be able to help you remove the weed.

Boundaries, fences and driveways

When disputes arise between neighbours about the walls, fences, and boundaries between their properties, it's necessary to find out who owns the disputed land. You should check the property title deeds to see who owns the land and where the boundary is situated for the property. However, boundary lines aren't always clearly defined on property deeds and it may be necessary to get an expert surveyor. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) has free advice on boundary disputes. If the boundary is a wall, it is likely to be a ‘party wall’, which you can read about below.

Generally, there isn't a duty to erect and maintain any type of fence or railing around your property. If your neighbour owns the wall or fence as shown on the title deeds, they have no obligation to change it just because you want them to for, for example, privacy. If they own it, you also cannot make changes to your side, by, for example, painting it, without their permission. The only exceptions are when there is a requirement in the title documents or lease or the property is next to a street or road and an issue with it may cause danger, in which case it will be a statutory nuisance and you can report it to your local authority. In order to find out who has an obligation to repair a fence or rail, you'll need to look at the property documents. This will set out who owns the fence or rail and whether they have to maintain or repair it. A person is only required to fix a fence or rail if it expressly says so in the title deeds. The only obligation of the fence owner is that it must be safe.

If there is a shared driveway then each person has a right of access and neither neighbour can block access to it. There are no automatic rights over parking spaces on a public road.

Shared amenities

Sometimes you'll share some amenities with your neighbours. These can include shared drains and pipes, shared gardens or a communal rooftop or stairs and lifts for a block of flats. Disputes usually arise over who has the responsibility of maintaining, repairing or cleaning the shared amenities. Legal documents such as relevant leases or title deeds will normally state who is responsible for maintaining or repairing the shared amenities. However, as shared amenities aren't always clear, it may be best to divide the costs of any repairs or cleaning for any shared amenities if each party intends to use them. The simple solution should be to always informally talk to your neighbour to resolve these situations.

In Scotland, if neighbours can’t agree on cleaning and maintenance responsibilities the local authority’s environmental health department can help resolve the dispute. The authority has the power to order households to clean shared stairways and take legal action if residents don’t comply. To find out about maintenance responsibilities, you can order property documents or title deeds on the Registers of Scotland website.

Party walls

You might have a shared wall if your property is adjoining another property. This is known as a party wall. There is a different process for dealing with party walls than for other boundaries. If you or your neighbour plans to carry out work that will affect a party wall between the two or more properties a party wall notice must be served on all of the people affected. For more information, read Party wall matters.

In Scotland, the owners of a shared wall generally have equal rights to carry out work on the structure. You should talk to your neighbour before making any changes to a shared wall in order to avoid disputes. For further information, read Party wall matters in Scotland.

Abusive, anti-social or violent neighbours

Some neighbours may be violent or abusive. Antisocial behaviour is acting in a way that causes or could cause alarm or distress, but the behaviour must be persistent. Instances of antisocial behaviour include harassment, verbal abuse, intimidation and bullying, animal nuisance (eg dog fouling) and vandalism. If you're experiencing any of these issues, you should establish who is responsible for the behaviour and try to mediate, if it's a relatively minor anti-social issue. You should call the police if your neighbour is showing or displaying any signs of violence or aggression. This is especially important if your neighbours are discriminating against you based on ethnicity, religion, sexuality, disability, gender or any showing any other form of discrimination.

If you are based in Scotland, you may wish to ask your local authority for help dealing with a neighbour’s antisocial behaviour. The council has a number of powers to deal with these situations, including applying to a court for an order to stop the behaviour, taking action itself to stop the behaviour, evicting the person responsible (if they are a local authority tenant), providing you with alternative accommodation and reporting the matter to the Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service to consider whether prosecution is appropriate.

Overhanging gutters

This section only applies in England and Wales

A general principle is that you own the airspace above your land. As a result, if your gutters overhang your neighbour's land then you may be trespassing (ie engaging in entry into another person’s land without justification, giving rise to the possibility of legal action), even if your neighbour cannot reach the gutters or they don’t interfere with your neighbour's day-to-day use of the land.

However, where there is an overhang, the following grounds can legitimise what would otherwise be a trespass:

  • the deeds to the house may specifically provide a right for them to be there

  • if the overhanging gutters have been in place for over 20 years, then the owner may have acquired a ‘prescriptive right’ for them to be there. In some circumstances, use of a neighbour’s land can be acquired by right through long usage

  • if they have been in place for at least 12 years, then it is possible to acquire ownership of the airspace that they occupy. The rules on adverse possession under the Land Registration Act 2002 make this less likely unless the gutters were in place at least as far back as 1991 

  • if the projections have been in place for some time, or are part of a development, then it is arguable that the land bought included the overhang into the neighbouring airspace. This may give rise to a boundary that is different above the ground than on the boundary line, potentially allowing gutters to remain

Visual intrusion

A recent Supreme Court case, Fearn and others v Board of Trustees of the Tate Gallery, established that visual intrusion can constitute common law nuisance. This means that, if people’s use of the view from one property interferes with a neighbour’s quiet enjoyment of their property, this neighbour may have a valid legal claim against the person whose view is interfering. This interference, however, would need to be significant and more intrusive than just a structure that can see into another house. For example, in the Fearn case, a viewing platform of the Tate Modern gallery was found to be a nuisance largely because it gave the gallery’s many visitors a clear view into neighbouring apartments.

How to resolve neighbour disputes

In the first instance, you should try and resolve any neighbour disputes informally by talking to your neighbour. This is the easiest way to resolve any dispute. If it appears that one or both parties won't be able to keep calm then it may be best to write to them. If your neighbour is a tenant, you can talk to their landlord.

If you have a residents’ or tenants’ association where you live it might be a good idea to speak to them to get support so the conflict becomes less personal. To find your local association, contact your local council.

It is also sensible to make a note of when the problem happens and to keep a record, for example, a photo of your neighbour’s rubbish in your garden, or a recording of the noise.

If the initial informal discussion doesn't appear to work then you may consider mediation. A mediation service will enable a third party, usually a trained impartial mediator, to facilitate any discussions and hear both sides of the story. They can make a recommendation as to what should be done. There can be a fee for mediation but it will cost considerably less than going to court or seeking legal advice. You can find a mediator in your area using the Ministry of Justice website. If you’re in Scotland, you can find a mediator on the Scottish Mediation website. For more information, read Mediation.

If your neighbour is a tenant, it may be appropriate to contact their landlord. Who the landlord is, depends on who owns the property. If the property is owned by the local authority, then the local authority's housing department should be the point of contact. A private landlord can apply for repossession of the property (ie by starting eviction proceedings) on the basis that the tenant has been a nuisance to neighbours or if discrimination is involved.

If the dispute arises because your neighbour is causing a statutory nuisance, you can make a complaint to your local council. If your neighbour is breaking the law by being violent or harassing you, you should make a complaint to the police.

If all else fails it may be appropriate to commence court proceedings. However, taking court action is expensive and if you take your neighbour to court it's likely to damage your relationship with them. Ask a lawyer for help with your situation if you plan to start legal proceeding.

Resolving boundary disputes

If you are trying to determine who owns an area of land or where a legal property boundary is, you should use HM Land Registry to view your property's title plan. HM Land Registry will show the extent of the land in a registered title by a red line on the title plan. Where a boundary of the land is not defined by a physical feature on the Ordnance Survey map, HM Land Registry indicates it on the title plan by a dotted line. You can apply to get the title plan corrected if you think there is a mistake on it.

If you've already ordered official copies of the plans for the properties to determine the legal boundaries and it's not clarified who owns the land, then you need to record the boundaries more accurately.

You can do this by either:

  • making a boundary agreement with your neighbour

  • applying for a determined boundary

Agreement

You can avoid having to create a boundary agreement by having an informal discussion with your neighbour. However, if you cannot agree on who should own the piece of land or agree to terms that accommodate both parties, you can create a boundary agreement. A boundary agreement records the boundaries between two properties and who's responsible for maintaining the land, for example, the hedge or fence between the properties.

Apply for a determined boundary

You can apply to have the exact boundary between your property and your neighbour's recorded. This is known as applying for a 'determined boundary'. You can only do this if your property is registered.

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