How to Manage Boundary Disputes involving your Property
In October 2018, Robert and Jennifer Oldfield discovered how costly a historic boundary dispute can be. After trimming back a blackthorn and hazel hedge owned by their neighbour Clare Pollock, they were ordered to pay £20,500 in damages.
In a trial that lasted six days, involving experts pouring over legal documents and maps going back to the Victorian era, including aerial photographs of the hedge taken by the RAF and dating back to the early days of flight in the 1930s, Mr and Mrs Oldfield argued they had a right to trim the hedge as it encroached on their land. However, overturning an earlier decision, Mr Justice Arnold ruled that it was “more probable than not” that the boundary had once been marked by a long-disappeared stock-proof fence.
Mr Justice Arnold reached his verdict after inspecting photos of fences in nearby fields in Lyme Regis from 1890 and 1909, as well as auction particulars for lots of land from 1928, stating:
“I conclude that the stock-proof fence marked the legal boundary in 1928. It follows that the boundary now lies to the west of bank, as Ms Pollock contends, and not to the east of the bank, as the Oldfields contend.”
This case illustrates how contentious and costly boundary disputes can be. In Wilkinson v Farmer  All ER (D) 217 (Oct), the Court of Appeal stated that professional advisors should warn clients of the potentially catastrophic costs and consequences of boundary disputes. In this particular case, a dispute over a small strip of land led to a legal bill exceeding £500,000.
Neighbour Boundary Disputes- is it in our DNA?
Since the advent of agriculture some 12,000 years ago (although the exact time period is disputed), land ownership and boundaries have been the cause of conflicts which have claimed millions of lives. Ownership triggers off deep psychological needs and feelings, for example, control over one’s immediate area, a sense of status, and belonging to a community (not necessarily physical, this can include a socio-economic community or class). Although these things are generally positive, any infringement on our territory can lead to adverse behaviour and reactionary defences.
Although research shows that encroachment on property boundaries can result in natural defensive behaviour, left to run amok, the consequences can be grave. To avoid months, if not years of stress and costly legal fees, understanding boundaries and seeking legal advice early is essential.
What is a boundary?
A boundary is a line that divides one piece of land from another. It is often invisible but can be marked by objects such as hedges, fences, or water (for example a stream). However, because the land in England and Wales has been settled for many generations, boundary markers are often moved over time or misrecorded in land registry documents. And to make matters further ripe for contention, a physical boundary may not necessarily follow the same lines as the legal one.
In 2015, the Ministry of Justice published a paper on boundary disputes. It identified that the causes of these disagreements could be divided into two categories; legal/technical and personal. And as you may have guessed, it does not take much for the former to spill over into the latter.
How are property boundaries determined?
The primary source for establishing a boundary are the title deeds of the property. Development plans can also be useful.
If the boundary laid out on the title is clear, it prevails over any other evidence to the contrary.
The case of Acco Properties Ltd v Severn  EWHC 1362 (Ch) set out several principles on settling boundary disputes:
- Registered title filed plans usually show general boundaries rather than the exact boundary line.
- Ordnance Survey (OS) plans are usually only a general guide to boundary features and should not be scaled up to delineate an exact boundary.
- The starting point is the wording of the conveyance and the conveyance plan or, if the plan is stated to be definitive, guided by the plan.
- If the conveyance is not clear, then extrinsic evidence may be considered, for example, features which existed at the date of the conveyance.
- Evidence of the parties' subsequent conduct may be relevant and admissible if it reveals what the parties intended.
- Evidence of features after the date of the conveyance may be relevant.
- The boundary needs to be clear rather than "fuzzy at the edges".
- Even if the boundary is clear from the conveyance other evidence may show a different boundary as a result of adverse possession.
- An informal boundary agreement need not be in writing as it demarcates an unclear boundary rather than operating to transfer an interest in land.
- Boundary agreements are usually oral but can be inferred or implied.
- The court should have regard to what a reasonable layman would think that he was buying.
Resolving disputes outside of Court
By considering the above principles, disputing parties’ Solicitors can work together through negotiation to reach an agreement. If this proves unsuccessful, the parties may find consensus can be reached through mediation. Formal litigation should only be considered as a last resort, especially given that some case law shows that the Courts may be unsympathetic to the parties when it comes to awarding costs. For example, in Rashid v Sharif  EWCA Civ 377, damages were assessed at only £300 and, as all claims for costs were dismissed, each party had to bear their own costs, which would have amounted to tens of thousands of pounds.
Parliament to save the day? New Legislation for Neighbour Property Disputes 2019.
The Property Boundaries (Resolution of Disputes) Bill [HL] 2017-19 is currently awaiting its second reading in the House of Lords. Should it become law, boundary disputes will be settled by a surveyor and their decision will be considered final unless it is challenged within 28 days via an appeal to the High Court.
How can you deal with a boundary dispute?
If you are concerned about the boundaries of your property or your neighbour’s actions, please talk to us in confidence. Our Solicitors will advise you on your legal rights, but more importantly, how to resolve the dispute in a way that preserves good relations as far as possible and keeps costs under control.
Guillaumes LLP Solicitors are a law firm in Weybridge with specialist property dispute lawyers ready to help you fight your corner. We have highly experienced residential and commercial property solicitors who can assist you with all matters concerning boundary disputes. Make an appointment with us by submitting an enquiry to speak to our experts.
Please note, this article does not constitute legal advice.