A Guide to Boundary Disputes

The law around boundaries is not especially clear, so it’s unsurprising that this area can result in many lengthy, costly, and acrimonious legal battles in which people feel their neighbours have unjustly treated them.

In this blog, Rachel Macwilliam, solicitor in our Disputes Team, outlines common causes of disputes, clarifies some misconceptions and outlines your options should you find yourself embroiled in a boundary dispute.

A common or garden problem

Boundary disputes are more common than you might imagine.  According to a recent survey by Churchill Home Insurance, around 1 in 5 property owners in the UK have been involved in a boundary dispute, which can result in a great deal of stress and expense. 

Often, these fights are over tiny pieces of land (sometimes involving just a few inches), which assume importance well beyond their value to the parties who dispute their ownership. It is not unusual for the precise location of a property’s boundaries to be unknown.

The Land Registry title plan shows what is referred to as a “locational” boundary with a red line, but this red line won’t show the detail down to the last centimetre, and these plans are for identification purposes only. To properly determine a boundary, a surveyor would need to map out the boundary to scale. This would be likely to cost around £1,000, potentially more.

Boundary disputes points of contention

Boundary disputes tend to arise when owners build/make changes to the extent of their property. Common scenarios include:

  • Extensions/building improvements
  • Repairs or replacement of fencing, hedges and pathways
  • Trees which have grown and overhang the neighbouring property
  • Repositioning or new location of pipes and drainage
  • Rights of way

Technical issues that often cause boundary disputes

There can also be technical/paper-based rather than physical problems behind disputes, such as:

  • Changes in ownership
  • Lack of documentation of boundary lines
  • Errors from the Land Registry or previous conveyancing
  • Discrepancies in mapping

Boundary Dispute Myth-Busting

Over time, a few myths have evolved which frequently cause confusion and misunderstandings regarding boundary dispute laws. We’ve addressed a few of them here to shed some light on the facts and bring some clarity to this complex area.

A room with a view?

Or, maybe not, as it turns out. Disappointingly, there is no actual right to a view, or indeed to light, for property owners. It’s a long-established principle in English Law, first recorded in 1610, that a landowner cannot protect the view from that land.  However, this has been successfully challenged, under specific circumstances, in the Court of Appeal.

The fence on the left is yours… or is it?

It’s often assumed that the left-hand boundary between two properties is the responsibility of the owner to maintain.  In reality, things are often not quite that simple, and checking your title deeds is the best and most reliable way to find out what the legal situation is. On the plans contained within the deed, a little “T” shape on the inside pointing into your land means the fence is your responsibility.

The 7-year rule 

Another common misconception is that if you occupy land for seven years without challenge, you can then apply for ownership. However, this is not strictly true, as the law is more complex than that. Broadly speaking, you will need to have occupied and maintained the land for a minimum of 10 years, and it depends on whether the land is registered or not.  This type of ownership claim through occupation is referred to as “adverse possession,” and there are strict criteria that are required to be met to support an adverse possession claim. Adverse possession is sometimes referred to as “squatter’s rights.”

Boundary disputes FAQs

Here are a few FAQs our Disputes & Litigation Team gets asked about boundary disputes, which we thought might be helpful.

Do boundary disputes affect the property value & can I still sell?

If all else fails and you do end up having to resort to the legal route to solve boundary disputes, some people worry that it might affect the value of their property and their ability to sell it in the future.

In theory, it is possible to sell a property with an ongoing dispute, but it might potentially put off some prospective buyers. It would likely be wiser to try to resolve boundary disputes before selling your property. You would also not be able to escape liability under a claim for damages for trespass or costs by simply selling the property.

A seller must declare as part of the conveyancing process if there has been a boundary dispute historically and, of course, if there is one that’s ongoing. Not disclosing this could result in a claim for misrepresentation if the buyer suffers a loss as a result.

Can I prune a neighbour’s hedge or tree which is blocking light to my property?

As mentioned above, a property owner has no right to light or a view, but if a tree or hedge is overhanging your property, you are able to trim/prune it as long as you do not cause it to die. If you live in a conservation area, or the trees in the hedge are protected by a “tree preservation order,” you might need your council’s permission to trim them. 

Cutting back a tree or hedge up to your property boundary is classed as “abating a nuisance,” which does not require permission. You would only require permission from your neighbour in situations where you need access to their land to undertake the work.

Is there a height restriction on my neighbour’s trees?

The high hedges legislation was introduced in 2005 under part of the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003. You can ask your council for a complaint form if the hedge is all of these: two or more mostly evergreen or semi-evergreen trees or shrubs over two metres tall.

Can someone prevent me from parking on my land due to a right of way over it?

Yes, they can. If the right of way is so narrow that parking will block access, you cannot park there. If you do, you will be obstructing the right of way, and you could receive a court order to prevent you from parking there. 

What are the 4 types of boundary disputes?

  • Encroachment boundary disputes involve a structure or building extending into land owned by a neighbour or doing something else on a neighbour’s land without their permission. They tend to happen during construction or property development.
  • Wall and Fence boundary disputes occur when one party believes the other has incorrectly placed or removed a wall or fence affecting their property.
  • Easement boundary disputes are about rights of way across someone’s property which are being disputed.
  • Adverse possession boundary disputes concern property or land has been occupied by someone other than the owner and is claiming ownership themselves. They are sometimes referred to as “squatter’s rights.”

Is there a time limit on boundary disputes? 

This will depend on the type of dispute. There are time limits around a claim for adverse possession, which can only be made after 10 or 12 years (depending on whether the land is registered). 

Claims for damages for trespass (which can arise in Encroachment or Wall and Fence disputes) must be brought within six years of the act you are complaining about unless the trespass continues. 

However, it is always advisable to act quickly if you find someone is doing something that interferes with your property or your rights to your property.  This is so that you can prevent the counterargument that you knew about it and did nothing, which, by implication, could mean that you accepted the situation. 

What is the 12-year rule for boundary disputes?

Before 2003, when the law changed, to acquire land by adverse possession or squatting, the land would need to have been occupied for at least 12 years without the owner’s consent. In 2003, this was shortened to 10 years for registered land, but, as previously mentioned, there are further complexities surrounding this general rule.

How much does the average boundary dispute cost?

This is hard to answer as there are so many different types of boundary disputes, and the circumstances surrounding each are different. In addition to legal fees, there are likely to be surveyor costs and court costs, should things escalate to that degree, as well as potentially being liable for your opponent’s costs.

It is essential to understand that boundary disputes can become one of the longest-running and most expensive disputes to be involved in. Therefore, it’s always best to consider alternative dispute resolution, including negotiation, mediation, and arbitration.

What evidence is needed for boundary disputes?

Your solicitor will help you work out exactly what documentary evidence you will need to pursue boundary disputes, but the following documents would generally be helpful in the first instance:

  • Title register and title plan
  • Conveyance deed and plan
  • Surveyor boundary report
  • Property plans
  • Historical records
  • Recorded agreements or restrictions

How to resolve boundary disputes

We always advise trying to resolve matters either by speaking with your neighbours initially or through mediation before moving toward the legal route. Regardless of how things turn out, the legal route is not likely to result in friendly relations with your neighbours and will be an expensive option.

Get in touch with a boundary disputes solicitor today!

If you would like to discuss a boundary dispute with our friendly and experienced team, you can contact us on 01872 241408 or email info@penderlaw.co.uk   

Please note: We do not offer no-win, no-fee services and will require money on account to be paid at the outset. Information about our pricing for Dispute matters can be found here.