How to avoid starting a war with next door

By Jonathan Goldberg, July 19, 2012
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Consider carefully before acting against bad neighbours

Consider carefully before acting against bad neighbours

Ruth from Poole, Dorset writes: My husband and I are teachers. With our two children and our dog, we recently moved into a cottage in a quiet street which leads down to the beach.

What began as an idyllic move out of the big city is fast becoming a nightmare, however. My neighbour is a cantankerous elderly gentleman who lives alone except for regular visits from his lady friend, who seems to be equally eccentric.

When we called round to say hello, we were met with a string of expletives and the door was slammed in our faces. Both of them were obviously drunk. Then my son lost his football and they confiscated it. But now we have this. There is a strip of land, not much more than three feet wide, which separates our houses. It gives access from the street to a garage-type structure in his back garden which I think he uses as a games room. He could equally well access it from the other side of his house and rear garden.

When we purchased our cottage, there were several pretty floral bushes which our vendors had planted immediately next to my house, within this narrow strip. Last weekend we were in London for a wedding. When we got home, we were amazed to discover all the bushes had been completely (and, in fairness, quite neatly) removed. We confronted him, and he claimed that the strip of land belongs to him, that even if it does not, he has a right of way over it permitting him access to his games room, and that he is a retired solicitor (which is true) and he will “fight us all the way in court”. I have contacted our conveyancing solicitor, who says the strip is clearly shown as belonging to us on the plans with no right of way recorded. His games room does not even appear, which suggests he built it fairly recently. We have no funds to spare for a legal dispute. What shall we do ?

Ruth, you face the classic dilemma of how to deal with bad neighbours. Do you let sleeping dogs lie, given that the bushes are gone anyway, or do you defend your rights, given that he sounds the kind of bully who may otherwise keep on coming at you?

My instincts have always been to give clients the latter advice. You actually have several options which could make life uncomfortable for him, without involving you in legal expense. Firstly, and assuming as your own solicitor advised you that the strip is not his land and that he knows it, he has stolen your bushes. You could complain immediately to your local police station. They may investigate and interview him, even if he is merely cautioned at the end of the day. Next, this conduct by a solicitor would be unprofessional, and could therefore form the basis of a complaint by you to the Solicitors Regulation Authority. It is perhaps not generally known that every professional person is subject to professional codes of behaviour which impose higher standards than the general law of the land.

Next, you can enquire of your local council whether he did have planning permission for his games room, and if not, you can ask them to order him to demolish it. And if he has no right of way over the strip, you can fence it off and forbid him to use it, threatening to sue him for trespass otherwise.
The difficulty with any or all of these options however, is that they amount to a declaration of war. In my experience, although it is bizarre, certain people actually do prefer a state of war over peace. If he is that sort of sad person who has little else in his life, there is a fear that you will be adding fuel to his flames by taking any such action.

This problem therefore passes from the strictly legal sphere into a matter of personal judgment for you and your husband. Why not make enquiries about him from your other neighbours, and see if they can offer any advice on how he is best handled? Very often, as the proverb goes, you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Or at least, how about seeking urgently a face to face discussion with him, before declaring war on all fronts? As Churchill said: “Jaw jaw is better than war war”.

The above is not formal legal advice and is given without liability. Jonathan Goldberg QC is a leading London barrister. Visit www.GoldbergQC.com

Last updated: 1:35pm, July 19 2012