Q What's the best way to deal with boundary problems?
A Don’t let the problem fester, contact your neighbour for a chat as soon as possible and do your best to keep the discussion cordial. Be reasonable, stick to the point at issue and know the legal position, just in case. Be prepared to compromise or share costs in order to keep the peace.
If you can’t reach a solution, however, get outside help before relations deteriorate irreparably. Mediation UK (01773 822222; ukmediation.net) offers a free mediation service in many areas of the country. Otherwise you could ask a person known to both parties whether they would mediate.
Caption: A friendly chat with your neighbour may resolve your boundary problems
Q Are there any restrictions to the height of the fence I can put up on my boundary?
A In general, fences or walls adjacent to a road, path or pavement require permission if they are to be more than 1m high or 2m elsewhere. In addition, many houses, particularly on open-plan estates, have covenants restricting fence heights in front gardens, so it’s worth checking your deeds.
Q My neighbour's new fence blocks all the light to my kitchen window. Can I insist she lowers it?
A Probably not. If the fence breaks normal planning rules, contact your local council. If not, you can object only if you have acquired 'rights to light'. The law in England, Wales and Northern Ireland states that, if you have enjoyed a particular level of light through a particular window for 20 years or more, you may be able to insist on retaining a ‘reasonable’ amount of light in the future, though it may not be as much as you have enjoyed in the past.
You may also acquire 'rights to light' for a man-made garden structure, such as a greenhouse, but not for the garden itself. If one side always trims the hedge or paints the fence, for example, then they are assumed to own it. If both maintain, then joint ownership is assumed. How to work out who owns a boundary Further information To find a chartered surveyor, contact The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (0870 333 1600; rics.org) and ask for the information centre.
Q How do I work out who owns a boundary
A If the boundary ownership is not clear on any plan or description, the law makes various assumptions:
1 If it's a fence, then usually the back of the fence faces the owner. The 'back' is the side with the posts.
2 If it's a hedge and ditch, then these belong to the land on the hedge side – ie the far side of the ditch is the boundary.
3 If this doesn't help, 'acts of ownership' come into play.
Q My neighbour owns the fence between us. It’s falling down, is he obliged to fix it?
A In general, there is no legal requirement to do so, though there may be a covenant in the deeds requiring the boundary to be maintained. However, if a fence is neglected, the owner could be liable if it causes damage or injury.
Q How do I settle a dispute with my neighbour about exactly where the boundary line is? I think his predecessor moved it.
A Boundaries are by no means as well-defined as people generally think, and moving a dividing fence or hedge away from its existing position is rarely practical unless both sides agree. You should not resort to law unless a great deal is at stake, as the costs can be enormous, not to mention a likely permanent loss of goodwill. If both parties are amenable, check the line of the boundary on your title deeds (your solicitor or mortgage lender is likely to have these). If this does not settle the matter, you could ask for advice from a chartered surveyor. However, in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, if the boundary line has been in position for 12 years or more, with no complaints, then it is likely to be judged correct in law, whatever the deeds or surveyor say. This is a result of the law of adverse possession, commonly known as 'squatters' rights', which can give ownership to the occupier after 12 years, if the owner has not objected. There is no similar law in Scotland.
Q Do I have to keep my hedges neat and tidy?
A There's no general legal requirement to maintain your hedges, or even keep them at all. However, you must not allow unkempt hedges to block pavements or footpaths, or obscure the view for motorists. Some houses, especially on estates, may have covenants requiring you to maintain your hedges; check your house deeds.
Q I’d like to grow climbers on the garden fence. What if my neighbour objects?
A If the fence is yours, or jointly owned, there should be no problem, provided the plants don’t stray into next door's garden. If the fence is your neighbour's, then he can say no. The most practical way around this is to train your climbers up freestanding tripods or erect trellis, or use posts and wires to support them.
Q I own the fence, but my neighbour will not allow me access to fix it. Can I insist?
A In general, you have no automatic right to access, but if you cannot reach an amicable agreement through discussion or mediation, you could apply for a court order to enter your neighbour's garden under the Access to Neighbouring Land Act 1992. If you do this, you will have to demonstrate that the work is necessary, is difficult or impossible to undertake without the access, and would not unduly disturb or inconvenience the neighbour. You will have to make good any damage you do (to plants growing near the fence, for example) and perhaps pay a small sum of money for access or compensation.
Q My neighbour’s hedge is tall and overhangs my garden. Can I insist they trim it?
A Generally, no. You can trim back an overhanging branch to the boundary, but not beyond it. Any branch trimmings remain your neighbour's property and you must offer them back. Tall hedges are covered by regulations under the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003. Contact your local authority for more information.
Q My neighbour has planted a leylandii hedge along our boundary, which will shade my garden and greenhouse, and block the view. Can I use the high hedge laws to make him remove it?
A No, your neighbour can plant what he likes in his garden, and you don’t have a right to light in your garden or greenhouse, or a right to a view. However, the high hedge laws will help once the hedge grows over 2m.
In England and Wales, Part 8 of the Antisocial Behaviour Act 2003 only comes into play once an evergreen or semi-evergreen hedge (deciduous hedges are exempt) of more than two trees or shrubs is over 2m high, acts as a barrier to light or access, and adversely affects the reasonable enjoyment of your domestic property. If you live in Scotland, you are covered by The High Hedges Act 2013 and, if you live in Northern Ireland, you're covered by the High Hedges Act (Northern Ireland) 2011.
Provided all the above apply, you can ask your neighbours to keep the hedge trimmed back to 2m. If they refuse, you can ask your local authority to intervene. It will charge a fee for this, which varies from authority to authority. The authority has to assess the hedge and how it affects your reasonable enjoyment of your property. It may decide that nothing needs to be done, even if it is 10m high. The most it can do is require the hedge to be reduced to 2m. Both sides can appeal against its decision.
If the hedge owners ignore the authority’s decision then it can enforce its decision through the magistrate’s courts, which can fine them up to £1,000. They can also order the work be carried out by a certain date. If it is not, then this is another offence carrying a £1,000 maximum fine, with the power to levy a daily fine on the hedge owners for every day the work remains undone.
As well as approaching your local authority, the offending hedges may be an actionable nuisance and, therefore, there may be other remedies available. There may also be covenants on the titles prohibiting the planting of large trees or shrubs.