Lessons for family litigants from a neighbour’s dispute

Family Law|August 15th 2017

It is a cliché amongst lawyers that there is nothing quite so hard-fought, and usually quite so futile, as a dispute between neighbours. I only remember dealing with one myself, early in my career and before I began specialising as a family lawyer. I recall that the parties were arguing over the ownership of a triangular sliver of land about ten feet long and about one foot wide at its widest point. I also clearly recall my client happily forking out what was then the very large sum of £600 for counsel’s opinion as to the merits of the case (I think counsel very sensibly advised my client against taking the dispute to court).

All of this came to mind yesterday when I stumbled across the report of a neighbour dispute on the Bailii website, the case Dickinson & Another v Cassillas. I won’t go into the details of the case but it concerned two adjacent detached properties on a housing estate developed in the late 1980s. Unfortunately, the builder erected one of the properties along the boundary line with the other and, for reasons best known to them, chose to set the gas and electricity meters for that property into the boundary wall, so that they could only be read from the other property. You can probably guess what happened next.

Sure enough, the owner of the other property objected to anyone accessing her property for the purpose of reading the meters. The owner of the boundary property took the matter to court and, after a two-day hearing the judge found in her favour, holding that she had a right to access the other property for the purpose of reading the meters.

It was, surely, a common sense decision. After all, the meters need to be read – as Lord Justice Richards said, it would be an absurd situation if the owner of the boundary property was unable to read their meters. However, the owner of the other property was not prepared to accept it. She therefore appealed the decision. I do not need to go into the detail of the Court of Appeal’s decision, save to say that the appeal was dismissed, including her appeal against an order that she pay the other party’s costs, which are said to amount to over £200,000. Ouch.

After reading the report I commented on Twitter that there is nothing quite like a neighbour dispute, meaning in terms of how hard-fought and futile they can be. However, on reflection I think that family litigation can match neighbour disputes, or at least give them a good run for their money. OK, the subject-matter of a family dispute may not be as trivial as the subject-matter of many neighbour disputes, but there can still be a number of parallels between the two.

The first is the issue of emotions, and the effect that they can have upon decision making. We all know how emotional family disputes can be, especially if they involve children, but rights over property, particularly if it is your home, can also be an incredibly emotive issue. To perceive that those rights are being violated in some way can easily lead to an emotional response. The clear lesson is: control those emotions!

Everything really follows from this. If you are being driven by emotions, it is very likely that you are not being reasonable. We see this all the time in family disputes, whether it be an argument over finances or a dispute over arrangements for children. Pig-headed unreasonableness will get you nowhere, dragging out the dispute and adding to the stress and cost involved. What is needed is for that party to just stand back from the dispute for a moment. If they do, they will usually be able to see that the stance they are taking is unreasonable. They then just have to be prepared to admit their error (admittedly not always an easy thing to do).

Linked to this is the question: is what you are arguing over worth it? Just like arguing over an insignificant sliver of land, very often a family dispute, or an element of it, will simply not be worth arguing over. For example, I saw many cases in which divorcing couples spent vast sums of money arguing over the ownership of items that had little or no value. In the area of children disputes I often came across parties arguing over minute alterations in arrangements for how much time the children would spend with each of them – alterations that would make no noticeable difference whatsoever to the children.

And finally, on the subject of children disputes, there is another parallel with neighbour disputes: in the end, it can be more important to find a way to live together than to argue. Just as neighbours have to live together, parents have to continue to work together for the sake of their children, at least until the children grow up. The children are likely to gain far more benefit from their parents cooperating than from whatever it was they were arguing over.

If you want to read the report of Dickinson v Cassillas, you can find it here.

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  1. Andrew says:

    What’s worse than neighbour disputes or rows about where little Johnny is to spend the holidays?
    I will tell you. Inheritance disputes between siblings who were children together. You see them re-fighting the silly arguments from then, only now it’s more expensive!

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