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The madness of boundary disputes

21 November 2012

Boundary disputes can be a nightmare for all concerned. Those involved are often prepared to fight tooth and nail over the smallest strips of land and emotions can run high.

In the case of Acco Properties Ltd v Severn, the judge helpfully summarised some of the legal principles that will apply in resolving such disputes.

If the land is registered, the plans filed at the Land Registry will usually show only general boundaries, not exact positions. The same is true of ordnance survey plans.

The starting point in determining a boundary is what is written in the original conveyance, together with the conveyance plan. If these do not clarify matters, the next thing to look for is evidence of features (eg hedges, fences, walls, meter housings etc) that existed at the time of the conveyance, as well as subsequent user conduct.

The Acco case also emphasised the importance of bringing certainty to the boundary rather than leaving it ‘fuzzy round the edges’.

Even if the original boundary can be established, a different one may be created by means of ‘adverse possession’. This is where one party has treated part of the property as their own, contrary to the true owner’s rights, eg fencing off an area that does not belong to them.

In a dispute, the court will also look carefully at whether there are any boundary agreements in place. These may be informal and need not be in writing; in fact they are often simply verbal or implied agreements.

The Acco case was, in fact, settled on the basis of an informal agreement that had been struck at a meeting to discuss the boundary. At that point, it was understood that, in cutting down two trees, one of the parties was doing so on his own land. The boundary line was, therefore, inferred from this.

The judge in the case described litigated boundary disputes as “economic madness”. Given the uncertainties and potential cost, alternative methods of resolving disputes, such as mediation, are a very attractive and increasingly popular option.

As always, if you need commercial and pragmatic legal advice, we’re here to help so please get in touch.

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Nick Southwell BA (Hons)
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Nick Southwell, litigator at Willans LLP
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