I have banged on for ages about the stupidity of going to law over border disputes. And I’m not talking about Russia invading the Crimea, or China’s campaign to take over Taiwan. No, much closer to home, I have in mind the passions which can be aroused when next-door neighbours argue over where exactly the border falls between their two properties.
When passions flare up, all sorts of problems arise. One is that the border between adjacent houses on an estate is rarely defined accurately. Ground workers take a cavalier approach, and it’s no good relying on “the area bordered in red” on the Land Registry plans, since that line when scaled up may be a metre or more wide in real life. If a border is not defined accurately, a houseowner may have difficulty selling their house because they cannot say exactly what land is for sale. And passions continue to run because protagonists can never get away from the “enemy” next door. But going to law can be terrifyingly expensive.
Let us look at some examples from my mediations.
The first concerned a row of detached houses, “little boxes on the hillside made of ticky tacky”. There was Mr Left’s house and a drive, then Mr Right’s service strip and house with a drive to its right, and so on up the hill.
Mr Left wanted to construct a garage over his drive with a bedroom over, but there was doubt about where exactly the border lay between his drive and the service strip. Mr Left asked Mr Right if he could construct his extension up to the edge of the service strip rather than the mid-point of the low dividing wall. Mr Right adamantly refused; but when he was on holiday, Mr Left built the shell of the extension nevertheless.
During the mediation, I knew we were in trouble when Mr Right produced a photograph of the two houses, showing where he believed the boundary lay. Interestingly, there was a bedsheet draped out of the bedroom window, painted with a Union Jack and “Welcome Home, Gary”. To be friendly, I asked “Who’s Gary?” to be told that he was his only son, now dead, a soldier killed in the first Gulf War, and Mr Left had encroached on the “sacred” land where he had played with Gary as a child.
After fierce negotiations, Mr Left agreed to pull down the extension and rebuild it two inches narrower. That would have been a good result, except that Mr Right said that he must have been Right (!) all along, so he wanted his costs. Mr Left had no money. The mediation failed, and no doubt the dispute rumbled on, with huge legal costs and destroyed relationships; but we got so close.
The second example concerned a pair of bungalows on a smart estate. In the first was a chap who had bought his bungalow when new, and the second had been occupied by an old lady now deceased. The chap used to help the old lady with light gardening, but when she died he encroached onto her drive by laying paviours about 6 inches onto her drive. Then the second bungalow was bought by two young ladies, who objected and wanted the full width of their drive to be restored.
Two themes developed. The first was that one of the young ladies was a taxi driver, and she generally finished her shift at 10.00pm, putting her taxi up the drive and closing the gate, which happened to be fixed to the front corner of the two bungalows. The effect was that the chap heard a loud bang through his wall, every night just as News at Ten was starting. He was not pleased.
But worse, it emerged that the two young ladies were gay, and the chap wasn’t going to have people like that on his estate. So he had gone round all the neighbours to persuade them to make the ladies unwelcome, but all the neighbours said they were a delightful couple, and were welcome on their estate. This did the chap’s temper no good at all!
When mediating I couldn’t change the chap’s attitude to gay people, so I concentrated on the gate. Late at night I ended up on all fours, designing a gate with an acoustic break, using the torch on my iPhone. The dispute settled, but it could have been very nasty.
With the third and final example there were similarities, but the major issue was legal costs. Here, the adjacent houses shared a drive, but each wanted to define their half of it. One side had done so by laying paviours (again!) which allegedly encroached on the other’s drive. Both sides had so far spent over £10,000 on solicitors and on experts’ reports, none of which came to any firm conclusions. And each side independently had an estimate of further costs to trial, if the mediation failed, of £50,000 – each! If the matter had proceeded to a full hearing, the losing side would have faced a costs order of £100,000 or so, meaning that they would likely have had to sell their house to pay those costs. How stupid is that?
The mediation settled, as it had to. The outcome is less important than that mediation allowed the parties to get off the merry-go-round and their homes were no longer at risk.
Sir Alan Ward is a mediator, latterly chairman of the Civil Mediation Council, and for many years before a Court of Appeal judge. I have mediated with him in his very first mediation, and he was excellent. But on the bench he saw too many of these Border Wars, and we would all be wise to have regard to what he said about border disputes:
“This is another of that hideous form of litigation called the boundary dispute, a form of litigation which is best not pursued. Just how much is this stupid piece of land worth? What you are arguing over is a few rhododendron bushes. If you live in St Georges Hill, you’ve got money to throw away, presumably. But why throw it away like this? You’re all potty. Disputes of this kind are a most hateful form of litigation; go away and sort it out.”
That says it all!