Homeowners locked in disputes with neighbours over misplaced fences are being offered a new solution which could save them hundreds of thousands of pounds in costly court battles, This is Money can reveal.
Property lawyers told of cases where neighbours had spent more than a quarter of a million pounds trying to address boundary issues, as legal fees piled up following months or even years going through the courts.
And they said that this had got worse during lockdown, as people have been confined to their homes and quarrels over things like fence ownership, unkempt hedges, party walls or use of driveways have escalated.
Next-door nightmare: Boundary disputes can sometimes escalate in to costly legal battles
In the worst-case scenario, going to court over a boundary dispute can result in the loss of a home.
The costs involved are typically between £10,000 and £250,000 – with VAT to pay on top. If these cannot be paid, then selling the property is sometimes the only option.
‘Boundary disputes are stressful and costly. They are made worse where there is real personal animosity between the parties – and this is common,’ said Peter Bourke, a property lawyer who helped set up the mediation service.
But a new mediation service being launched by two property industry bodies claims it will give homeowners the chance to resolve such disputes in eight hours of sessions for a touch more than £2,000.
Mediation is when both parties involved in a dispute meet with a trained, impartial third person who tries to help them reach an agreement on key issues.
The Boundary Disputes Mediation Service has been launched by the Property Litigation Association and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, and costs £240 including VAT to apply and then a fixed fee of £2,100 including VAT per party for an eight-hour mediation service.
Disputes often centre around who owns a fence, driveway or walkway between two homes
A statement from the mediation service said: ‘Solicitors report that neighbourhood disputes have increased during the pandemic as people have been confined to their homes.
‘Quarrels over apparently minor issues such as who owns a fence, unkempt hedges, party walls or use of driveways can swiftly escalate and are often slow to resolve.’
Jacqui Joyce, an experienced mediator who sits on the PLA’s law reform committee, added: ‘People at the heart of neighbour disputes can rapidly get themselves into a fight, but few know how to then get out of it.
‘Mediation gives people an opportunity to exit the fight without the courts being involved, avoiding the stress, risk and huge expense that this may entail.’
However, there is no guarantee that the mediation process will work, as the parties might not reach an agreement during the eight hours. They could then decide to take the issue to court anyway.
Figures from the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution’s latest mediation audit show that 72 per cent of mediations settle on the day, with a further 21 per cent settling shortly after the mediation.
Homeowners who want to use the mediation service can apply on the RICS website.
Boundary disputes can range from being relatively minor to taking over homeowner’s lives.
This year, two neighbours got involved in a dispute when one said her home could be seen from the next door tennis court after a hedge was removed (stock image)
Earlier this year a solicitor took her record label boss neighbour to court after he trimmed back a hedge separating their multi-million-pound homes in Esher, Surrey.
She claimed that a 2ft walkway that was uncovered belonged to her property – and said that cutting the hedge infringed upon her privacy because it meant her home could be seen from the neighbour’s tennis court.
But the court found in the hedge-trimming neighbour’s favour, leaving the solicitor with a £50,000 legal bill.
In another case from 2018, a couple from Swanage, Dorset, found themselves facing a £14,000 legal bill which they said they may need to sell their home to pay, after fighting a bitter boundary row with a neighbour over a privet hedge and a small strip of land.
And the year before that, a retired couple from East Ham, London, had to hand over their home of 31 years, worth £600,000, to their neighbours in order to cover legal costs.
They had lost a case in which they accused the neighbours of trespass and said they had removed their fence and building an extension three inches into their garden, after turning down a £750 peace offering years earlier.
‘One homeowner racked up £250k in costs… and then sold the property anyway’
Peter Bourke, a property lawyer who helped set up the mediation service, and a senior partner at Wilsons Solicitors, describes one of the most costly boundary disputes he has been involved in.
‘The neighbours disliked each other intensely, and an opportunity arose for that dislike to manifest itself in a boundary dispute.
‘The solicitors on both sides were unaware of the extent of the personal animosity and it took some time for either of the clients’ true underlying feelings to become apparent.
‘Despite the solicitors’ best endeavours to seek a compromise, it took several years for the matter to be mediated.
Whilst an agreement was reached at mediation, both sets of clients sought to resile from [abandon] the agreement the following day.
‘Both sets of solicitors terminated their respective retainers as a result.
‘The costs, including numerous experts (it was not just a question of the line of a fence), exceeded £250,000 excluding VAT each. One of the parties subsequently sold their property, thus ending the dispute.
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