Mediation may prevent ‘costly and absurd’ neighbour disputes

The government wants to promote mediation as a way of avoiding costly and sometimes “absurd” neighbour disputes.

The move follows concerns expressed by the Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke about the way such disagreements often spiral out of control and end up costing far more than the dispute is actually worth.

Mr Elphicke introduced a Private Member’s Bill to oblige property owners to appoint impartial surveyors to settle boundary disputes. Each side would have to cover their own costs.

The government rejected the idea but the Ministry of Justice agreed to carry out a study to assess the scale of the problem.

It found that there were about 1,000 serious neighbour disputes each year. Many cases cost between £10,000 and £50,000, even though there was often little at stake except a few feet of land. The disputes could take between three months and three years to settle.

In one extreme case, two neighbours spent £500,000 in a dispute over the ownership of a thin strip of drainage ditch. It was described as “Dickensian litigation” by a leading judge. Lord Justice Bean said: “At a time when courts are under great pressure, the battle between these two couples took up ten days of court time — more than some murder trials.”

Mr Elphicke told the Times newspaper: “I know from the experience of my constituents that reform is needed. These disputes can be very stressful and cause heartache, dragging on for years. It is the height of absurdity. But a mediation process would take out the emotion and cost a lot less money.”

The Ministry of Justice report found that neighbour disputes are sometimes fuelled by “jealousy or greed” and the number of cases showed no sign of decreasing.

Ministers are now looking at ways to encourage people to consider mediation if they have a dispute with a neighbour.

It is, of course, all too easy for matters to get out of hand if people don’t remain calm and maintain a sense of perspective when disagreements arise.

It is usually better for disputes to be settled amicably but if this is not possible then both sides should seek legal advice before attitudes begin to harden.

Clarification of the legal position may help resolve the problem right at the outset. If there is still a disagreement then a solicitor may be able to arrange mediation so that a settlement can be reached that is fair to both sides.

This approach is usually far less stressful than going to court and it may help you to maintain a good relationship with your neighbour. This is very important as you may have to live alongside each other for many years to come.

If agreement still can’t be reached then litigation may become necessary. It is then even more important to get sound legal advice so that the dispute doesn’t escalate to a point where the costs involved are out of proportion to the value of the claim.

Please contact us if you would like more information about the issues raised in this article.

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