The Grass Isn't Always Greener - A General Guide To Boundary Disputes
An Englishman’s home is his castle…..Or so they say. But what happens if you end up in a dispute with your neighbour about the boundary between your homes? It can be an argument that is emotionally fraught and expensive.
In the case of Acco Properties Ltd v Servern (2011) the judge stated that
"a party can litigate over a tiny strip of land, although I would certainly agree that it is usually economic madness to do so, but a person remains entitled in law to protect and preserve that which is his or hers".
Before litigation is considered, it might be worth considering an alternative form of dispute resolution or simply negotiating informally with your neighbours. But the starting point in any negotiation or resolution is establishing your own position. I would suggest the following as a basic checklist to consider when dealing with a boundary dispute;
Firstly, What Is A Boundary?
It may be a simple question, but establishing your property’s boundaries is important because the boundary of a property determines what rights and/or obligations you may have in respect of a particular piece of land. Do you really want to assume any liabilities that may come with that piece of disputed land? Do you fully understand the implications?
The question of what a ‘boundary’ is, is not as straightforward as you may think…..
- A boundary is a line that divides two pieces of land.
- A boundary may be physical (i.e. marked by a physical feature such as a wall, fence, stream or line of trees.)
- A boundary may be legal, in that it is identified in the legal documents of title, but rarely precisely, and it will not necessarily be apparent on the ground.
- Confusingly, the physical boundary may not exactly follow the same line as the legal boundary.
- Boundaries can be horizontal or vertical.
- Boundaries may be fixed by agreement between the owners of the two pieces of land, or by legislation.
How Is A Boundary Determined?
The general principles are:
- Registered title filed plans usually show general boundaries rather than the exact boundary line. Generally, the first point of reference will be your title deeds. If you don’t have a copy, you can obtain these from the Land Registry for a small fee. There is normally a specific clause in your conveyance which should be clear enough to enable you to determine the precise boundary of your property . However, often these show general boundaries rather than the exact precise boundary line. In addition, you should also consider if a boundary has been amended by:
- informal agreement;
- the parties' conduct; or
- adverse possession (a method of obtaining possession of land without the owner’s permission).
However, the extent of your boundary is not always clear from your property’s official documentation. This is how disputes can arise. So what else can you use to assist in determining a boundary?
Ordnance Survey plans too are usually only a general guide to boundary features and should not be “scaled up” to determine an exact boundary.
- If the conveyance is not clear then other evidence may be considered, for example, features which existed at the date of the conveyance, such as fence lines, trees, shrubs etc. Old photographs (if available, may help to establish the position of these historically).
- Evidence of the parties' subsequent conduct may be relevant and admissible if it reveals what the parties intended, i.e. did the original parties to the contract later confirm their intentions in correspondence?
- Evidence of features arising after the date of the conveyance may be relevant, i.e. has someone put up a wall or a fence which reflects a previous boundary agreement?
- But be careful, even if the boundary is clear from the conveyance other evidence may show a different boundary as a result of adverse possession (i.e. where a party who is not the registered proprietor can be registered as such via a period of uninterrupted use of the land).
- A court can also have regard to what a reasonable layman would think that he was buying, i.e. to stand in the shoes of ‘the man on the street’ buying the same.As detailed above, a boundary dispute is not always easy to determine, or indeed, resolve. Often a pragmatic and objective standpoint is recommended, but not always easy to adopt.
We are experienced in dealing with boundary disputes and able to provide practical advice from the outset of any potential dispute.