COVID-19: Neighbour Disputes Are Heating Up During the Pandemic
The impact of neighbour disputes should not be underestimated. If not nipped in the bud early, arguments with neighbours can balloon out of control, leading to considerable stress and anxiety, damage to property, and potentially, large costs. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has added fuel to the fire of already fractious neighbourly relationships, with even the smallest actions causing tempers to boil over. In September 2020, the Guardian reported that situations such as neighbours breaching the ‘rule of six’ and children causing noise while doing their energetic Joe Wicks exercise routines, were leading to significant disputes. The paper quoted a Manchester-based mediator, Julie Farrell, who explained what she has heard during recent disputes; “If the neighbours are being difficult and you can’t go out because of the weather, that’s going to cause a problem, whether it’s breaking lockdown rules or someone trimming your hedge. Your home is your castle, isn’t it?” So if you are caught in pandemic neighbour hell, or you have found yourself in conflict with ‘next-door’, what should you do?
Understanding the two types of common law nuisance
There are two types of common law (laws which are established by judges based on previous legal cases) nuisance which apply in the domain of neighbour disputes; private nuisance and public nuisance.
In the category of private nuisance, the 1997 case of Hunter v Canary Wharf Ltd, the House of Lords found three primary examples of violations of property rights:
• Encroachment on a neighbour's land
• Direct physical injury to a neighbour's land
• Interference with a neighbour's quiet enjoyment of their land
These are not hard and fast categories, rather they represent some of the types of disputes which can occur. Private nuisance typically happens when a person does something on their own land, which they are perfectly allowed to do in law, but has adverse consequences for their neighbour. This may include physical damage, such as oil leaking from a tank and causing contamination, or tree roots damaging the foundations of an adjacent property, but this may not always be the case. It is important to note that in order for there to be liability for damages, the impact must be reasonably foreseeable. In legal cases, it is possible to bring a claim for both compensation for losses, and injunctive relief to prevent recurrence of the problem.
Public nuisance is distinctly different from private nuisance because it does not require the claimant to have a personal interest in the property negatively impacted by the actions of another party. It also allows claimants to recover damages for personal injury, as well as damage to property rights. Examples of this type of nuisance might be fly-tipping on common land or obstructing a road. Public nuisance claims are rarely brought, however, because there are other mechanisms which are more suitable and readily applicable, such as environmental legislation or strict enforcement procedures.
What should I do if I am in dispute with my neighbour?
In most cases, taking legal action against a neighbour, in the case of private or public nuisance, should be the last resort. In most cases, it is possible to resolve the matter through other means such as negotiation or mediation. Understandably, some people may be reluctant to speak directly to their neighbour regarding a matter of concern, for fear of causing dispute, however, this should be the first step unless there is a particular reason this is not possible. Often, preconceptions of what a neighbour may say or do are unfounded, and it is possible to bring a matter to an end quickly and amicably. We recommend keeping records of the nuisance behaviour you have observed, as you may need to rely on this at a later date. Depending on the circumstances, you may be able to raise a complaint with a private landlord, housing association, or local authority, who can take matters up with their tenant.
If you have tried to resolve matters yourself, but have been unable to do so, it is advisable to speak to a property Solicitor who can advise you of your available options. Most Solicitors will recommend a form of alternative dispute resolution (ADR), which is proven to be highly effective in not only finding a resolution but also preserving the relationship between neighbours. And crucially, ADR methods are much faster and cheaper than formal litigation. One of the most effective ADR strategies, mediation, involves asking a neutral third-party who is trained in dispute resolution, who will listen to both sides and recommend a way forward.
Disputes with neighbours are on the rise during the current pandemic. In extreme nuisance situations, if your neighbour is using methods such as intimidation, threats, violence or harassment, and you or your family are at risk of harm, you may need to ask the police to intervene. If you are unsure whether to contact the police, speak to a property Solicitor who can advise you.
Guillaumes LLP Solicitors is a full-service law firm based in Weybridge, Surrey. We have highly experienced civil litigation and property law teams who can assist you with all matters relating to neighbour disputes. To make an appointment, please call us on 01932 840 111.