Boundary Disputes Worth the Hassle?

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Boundary Disputes Worth the Hassle?

Boundary issues have historically been a fertile breeding ground for litigation, the costs of which can often exceed the value of the area of land in dispute. Frequently, common sense can go out of the window once battle lines are drawn and the parties seek to enforce their own differing interpretations of the true boundary line.

In considering the law in this area it is worthwhile remembering as a starting point that title plans issued by the Land Registry do not show the precise legal boundary of a property but only a "general boundary". The Land Registry base their plans on the Ordnance Survey map and to a scale which means that the thickness of a boundary line on the title plan can actually equate to a distance of a few metres on the ground. Many a boundary dispute has arisen from the mistaken belief that the Land Registry title plan is sacrosanct and shows the precise position of the legal boundary.

In order to determine the precise legal boundary of a property it is advisable to obtain specialist advice from a solicitor and/or surveyor before disputing a boundary with a neighbouring owner. As a starting point a professional adviser will seek to locate any historic title deeds for the property, which may contain detailed plans and/or measurements which precisely defined the boundaries of the property at a time when the property was sold in the past. Unfortunately, in the modern world of electronic data storage many of the old title deeds and documents that used to be passed from owner to owner on the sale of a property have been discarded and lost or destroyed in the often mistaken belief that all of those documents are no longer relevant. Much vital evidence as to the legal boundary of properties has been lost in this way.

In the absence of documentary evidence, the legal boundary can be established by reference to topographical features, the previous conduct of the neighbouring owners over the years and various rebuttable presumptions. The existence of physical features such as fences and hedges can be used as evidence of the legal boundary and if a party has treated an area of land as within its ownership for a period of 10 years or more without consent or objection from another party then it may be possible to claim ownership of that land pursuant to the rules governing 'adverse possession'. It is also worth bearing in mind that rebuttable presumptions may apply unless there is specific documentary evidence to the contrary, such as (a) if a property abuts a highway then the legal boundary of the property extends to the middle line of the highway (b) where the boundary comprises a hedge and a man-made ditch then the boundary is the edge of the ditch furthest from the hedge and (c) if eaves or foundations extend across a boundary line then the eaves and foundations are within the boundary but not the airspace in between them.

If the parties can reach agreement on the location of boundaries without recourse to the Courts then a 'Boundary Agreement' can be drawn up and signed by the parties. This agreement can then be registered against the respective legal titles at the Land Registry but will still be classed as a 'general boundary' rather than a definitive legal boundary. It is possible to unilaterally apply to the Land Registry for a determined boundary by preparing a detailed professional plan that is accurate to 10mm and following the procedure set out in the relevant Land Registry practice guide. If the neighbouring owner objects to this application then the matter will be decided by a specialist judge of the Property Chamber of the First-tier Tribunal.

It is clear that boundary disputes remain a complicated issue and that the law as it stands can create the uncertainty which encourages disputes between adjoining owners. Given the often prohibitive costs of a long drawn out legal battle, the common sense approach must be to obtain early professional advice to determine the issues at hand and to only engage in discussions with the neighbouring owner once you are fully aware of the relevant facts.

If you would like more information or to discuss any of the issues raised in this article please do not hesitate to contact myself.

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