"Elderly couple to lose home over strip of land" - The Guardian
"£140,000.00 squandered over land the size of a stroke of a Mont Blanc pen'' - The Daily Mail
As these headlines show, the costs and consequences of fighting a boundary dispute can be devastating. It may be something in the air or the water, or the fact that it only became compulsory to register title to land in Norfolk in 1990 that induces neighbour disputes over boundaries in our part of the world.
Legal textbooks put boundary disputes into 4 categories, whether between neighbours or nations.
- Positional: where is the exact line of the boundary between properties?
- Territorial: one neighbour lays claim to land owned by another
- Cultural: Ignorance of the law coupled with the lack of regulatory authority
- Resource: Access to facilities needed to properly enjoy the use of a property, such as a right of way, or utilities.
There is also a 5th category, the Personal, where the boundary dispute becomes a focus for other issues between neighbours.
Disputes usually begin because of uncertainty over the extent of property and this uncertainty is caused by the English system of recording property ownership. In our system we record Title, that is ownership, and the general extent of land but not the precise extent of plots of land. Maps and plans in old deeds can be merely sketch plans not drawn to consistent scale and not by reference to identifiable fixed points. Land Registry plans show what are called 'General Boundaries' – a good idea of where the boundaries are but deliberately not precise. The thickness of a line on a Land Registry plan can represent a metre or more on the ground depending on the scale.
If a boundary dispute is brewing between you and a neighbour it is important to take stock and consider:
- The context of the dispute. Are you arguing over something which does not in fact make much if any difference to the enjoyment of your property? Or does a small amount of disputed land, for example, make the difference between being able to access your property or not.
- The paper titles to all the properties involved. The paper titles are not just the official Land Registry entries but also any old and historic deeds to the properties which may or may not be recorded at the Land Registry.
- The character of your neighbours. Are they the kind of people who realise when it is cost effective to pursue a dispute and when not, or are they people who stand on principle?
- Your financial resources and those of your neighbours. Do either you or your neighbours have legal expenses insurance which, subject to the terms of the insurance policy could cover all or part of your legal costs? The sort of headlines at the beginning of this article should give everyone pause for thought before getting into a boundary dispute.
Boundary disputes can be resolved amicably by a simple agreement, referral to an agreed expert land surveyor, by mediation, or arbitration. There is also now the possibility of what is known as "Early Neutral Evaluation" in which a judge, retired judge, or other agreed adjudicator considers the arguments of each side on a without prejudice basis and gives their opinion as to the likely outcome if the dispute were to go to Court or Tribunal.
If an amicable resolution is not possible then the dispute can be referred to the Court or it is possible to apply to the Land Registry and then the Land Registration chamber of the First Tier Tribunal to determine the boundary. The Land Registry may determine the boundary in a way that satisfies no one.
If you have no choice but to go to court there is a specific protocol that must be followed before starting proceedings to ensure that the party intending to start the proceedings provides all the information in support of their claim in advance, including any reports from land surveyors, and other technical experts.
Remember that to fight a boundary dispute, like any type of proceedings, it has got to be cost effective. There is no point fighting a case only at the end to have to sell the property that you were trying to protect just to pay the legal costs.
To find out more or discuss your individual circumstances in further detail, our dedicated dispute resolution solicitors are here to help. Contact us on 01603 693500 or email us using the 'Make an Enquiry' form on our website. To comply with social distancing rules, our team can offer telephone or video appointments from the comfort of your home.
*This article is provided for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or other professional advice.