05 July 2016

Neighbours: When the Red Mist Descends, Don’t Let Costs Go Down the Drain

A dispute between neighbours about who should pay a £4,000 bill to fix a drain has racked up legal costs of more than £300,000.

Court v Vandyke & Anor centres on a dispute in York over who should pay for work carried out on a common private drain. Lord Justice Floyd said: “We do not know where the blame lies. Nevertheless, the adjective ‘disproportionate’ is wholly inadequate to describe the combined expenditure on resolving the question of who pays a £4,000 bill.” This case illustrates how disputes between neighbours can spiral out of control when feelings run high.

In the recent case of Acco Properties Limited v Severn which concerned a boundary dispute, Judge Simon Barker QC described it as “economic madness” to “litigate over a tiny strip of land…, but a person remains entitled at law, to protect and preserve that which is his or hers”.

Boundary disputes are one of the most common disputes between neighbours. These disputes can be highly acrimonious and result in lengthy and expensive litigation.

One of the reasons that neighbour disputes have the potential to become so bitter is because the parties have no escape from one another due to their proximity. Behaviour on the part of one’s neighbour which was once merely annoying can soon become intolerable. Once the red mist descends the parties can become so entrenched in their respective positions that they are blinded to all but the day when they will emerge from court bloody but victorious. Often neither side will countenance the idea of settling, viewing it as a sign of weakness. To this proposition I can do no better than to quote Churchill, who once remarked that “It is better to jaw-jaw than to war-war”.

Another reason that many people are put off from trying to settle disputes with their neighbours is because they think it will require them to interact with their opponent, a prospect they find understandably odious. In fact there is no need for the parties to a dispute to have any direct contact at all. Negotiations can take place between solicitors by correspondence or with the help of a trained mediator without the parties having to be in the same room as one another.

No matter how high feelings are running, it is always better to try to avoid litigation wherever possible. So if you have a dispute with your neighbour, the moral of the story is to let your solicitor do the jaw-jawing instead of going to war-warring. It might just save you from being lumbered with a £300,000 bill for legal costs over a squabble about a £4,000 repair bill.

Justine Soutter

Justine Soutter
Solicitor