A boundary dispute is a disagreement between the owner(s) or occupier(s) of two or more neighbouring properties in respect of their rights and duties over their land.
It is common for minor disagreements with neighbours relating to rights over land to escalate into full-scale boundary disputes.
Boundary disputes can take many forms. Typically, disputes will arise where two adjacent property owners hold a genuine belief that they own the same piece of land. As such, they may disagree on the position of a boundary wall between their properties, as well as any obligation to maintain that structure.
Much broader arguments can also arise, for example, allegations of trespass, or claims for adverse possession (i.e.; land acquired through long use). Boundary disputes relating to the height of a boundary wall, or even overgrown foliage, may also lead to allegations of interference with rights to light.
Determining the legal boundary
Often the construction of a new boundary wall will highlight the issue of land ownership from which a boundary dispute will arise. Other common types of boundary dispute may arise where works are carried out to, or directly against, an existing party wall, for example, the construction of a new extension or conservatory.
Central to this type of dispute will be the precise position of the boundary line between two adjoining properties.
Most properties have defined boundaries comprising of walls, fences, hedges, trees, edging stones and such like. However, in England and Wales there is usually no clear record of the exact legal boundary between two pieces of land, nor indeed who owns the boundary wall or other dividing features.
Your starting point in establishing the position of a legal boundary should always be the original title deeds, i.e.; the paper documents which relate to the property prior to its registration. You can also access the Official Copy of the Land Registry title plan for both your own and any adjoining property. Unfortunately, however, any plans are often of limited value in ascertaining exactly where your land ends and your neighbour’s begins.
Any original paper plan still in existence is unlikely to be drawn to specification. Similarly, plans held by Land Registry are only designed to show general land ownership, not legal boundaries. In both cases any plans are often based on large scale Ordnance Survey mapping and, as such, are not intended to show the line or location of boundaries with any precision.
The problem in establishing the legal boundary can often be compounded for the following reasons:
- the original physical features plotted on the plans may no longer be visible on the ground, for example, they may have deteriorated or been removed.
- discrepancies may arise between dimensions on a plan and scaled-up measurements.
- boundaries may have changed if previous owners have agreed to alter them but failed to record any changes with Land Registry or otherwise.
- due to prolonged use, a party may have acquired a right to additional land by adverse possession.
To establish the legal boundary you may need to consider a combination of old and new title documents and plans, the position of any longstanding physical features, any aerial or other photographs (both historic and current), as well as correspondence between adjoining owners over a number of years.
The law relating to party fence wall or party wall boundary disputes
The Party Wall Act 1996 provides a framework for preventing or resolving disputes relating to boundary and party walls.
Under the Act a boundary wall (or ‘party fence wall’ as it is legally known) is defined as a wall not being part of a building that stands astride a boundary line of land owned by different people – whereas a party wall is an adjoining wall forming part of the actual buildings. The Act also extends to excavations near neighbouring buildings, for example, footings for an extension.
As such, if you intend to carry out certain types of building work to, against or adjacent to, a boundary or party wall – or your neighbour is proposing such works – there may be a legal requirement to notify all adjoining owners. If work starts without notice being given, any adjoining owner may seek to stop the work through a court injunction, as well as seeking other legal redress.
Needless to say, any agreement with adjoining owners does not remove the possible need to apply for planning permission and/or to comply with building regulations. Conversely, gaining planning permission or complying with building regulations does not remove the need to comply with the statutory notice requirements.
What do I do if a boundary dispute arises?
Boundary disputes can easily escalate into threats of court action, either in relation to a Party Wall Act issue, or indeed any other issue arising from the use of adjacent land or land believed to be owned by both you and your neighbour.
It is therefore always best to consider what alternative options may be available to you to try to resolve things amicably – not least because everyone involved will still have to live next to each other, even when the dispute is over.
Below we examine the different ways in which a boundary dispute may be dealt with.
Creating a boundary agreement
In circumstances where you and your neighbour are able to agree on a clear boundary line, you can create a ‘boundary agreement’. This can also be used to establish and record responsibility for maintenance of a boundary feature between two properties, i.e.; the wall, fence, hedge or trees.
The boundary agreement cannot be used, however, to sell or give away part of your land to your neighbour, or vice versa. The agreement will also need to be signed by both parties and recorded with Land Registry.
Applying for a determined boundary
Alternatively, you can individually apply to have the exact boundary between your property and your neighbour’s property recorded. This is known as an application for a ‘determined boundary’. Your application will generally need to be accompanied by a determined boundary plan prepared or endorsed by a chartered land surveyor or other suitably qualified professional.
If your neighbour objects to your application, your application may be referred to the Land Registration Tribunal for a decision. Once the precise boundary has been determined, the information will then be added to the title register.
Litigating a boundary dispute
Prior to litigating a boundary dispute you should always consider all forms of alternative dispute resolution, including mediation and arbitration. In some cases, however, litigation may be unavoidable.
In these circumstances the court will be required to analyse the title documentation, as well as any written and oral evidence from the property owners that lends weight to an argument for or against ownership. Needless to say, legal advice should always be sought in these circumstances.
Should I seek legal advice?
The law relating to boundary disputes can be complex, not least in relation to establishing the legal boundary in circumstances where there is conflicting evidence. This type of dispute can often lead to protracted and costly legal proceedings.
If you are considering bringing a claim in relation to a boundary dispute or, alternatively, you find yourself faced with defending such a claim, it is always advisable to seek expert legal advice at the earliest possible opportunity.
A legal adviser with experience in resolving boundary disputes can help you to resolve the matter, for example, via a boundary agreement for submission to Land Registry, or assisting with an application for a boundary determination.
Your legal adviser can also provide you with expert advice on points of law, the proper construction of any title documentation and assess your prospects of success in the event that litigation is unavoidable.