Unfortunately, disputes between neighbours are some of the most common legal disputes in Australia. Often these disputes arise because of shared fences, overhanging trees, and property boundaries. This article looks at how to resolve a dispute over a dividing boundary line between properties. The information is for general purposes only, and we recommend obtaining professional advice relevant to your specific circumstances.
Determining the Boundary Line
In a new housing estate, the boundary line of a property is usually clear. The developer can supply copies of property plans with all the boundaries marked, and there are usually physical pegs in the ground to represent these boundaries.
Things become more complicated when it comes to older, more established, properties. Buyers of established properties usually rely on the location of fences to determine where the boundary line is located, although this is an unreliable method. For one thing, not every property is fully fenced, especially large rural properties. In addition, even if there is an existing fence, it may not faithfully follow the property line. Property owners build fences in locations other than the boundary line for all sorts of reasons, for example, because of the difficulties of building exactly on the property line due to obstructions or soil conditions.
In rare cases, and usually only with larger rural properties, the boundary of a property may be marked by a physical landmark such as a river. This obviously raises issues if the landmark changes, such as the river changing course over time. There are special complex rules that apply to these sorts of boundaries, and how you should resolve a dispute over this type of boundary.
For most properties, however, establishing the location of the boundary is fairly straightforward (although it can be expensive). A boundary survey will establish the exact lines and corners of a property. It is often worth having a boundary survey carried out prior to buying a property, even if there are established fences or the boundaries seem obvious. It can be especially worthwhile if you intend to build an extension or other improvement and the location of the boundary line might impact your future plans.
Resolving Disputed Boundaries
When neighbours can’t agree on the location of a property’s boundary, this can lead to a boundary dispute. It’s important to deal with boundary disputes as quickly and efficiently as possible to avoid issues arising such as encroachment, adverse possession, and trespassing. Maintaining a harmonious relationship is the first step in trying to resolve the dispute and can be key to resolving it as quickly and inexpensively as possible.
The next step is to identify the real nature of the dispute. If there is no existing fence and no boundary pegs, then both parties may be invested in identifying where the boundary actually falls. If there is an existing fence and one party is concerned that it is mislocated, then that party may have to bear the cost of having a survey done to confirm the true location.
If there is no existing fence to mark the boundary location, or the existing fence is in the wrong place, then the parties need to work together to plan for, and pay the cost of, a new fence. No matter where you are located in Australia, both neighbours have a legal responsibility to contribute to the cost of a reasonable fence. Although this is often a considerable expense, it is far more expensive and stressful to fight a protracted legal battle to avoid paying the cost. There is usually little point in trying to avoid an unavoidable cost of homeownership.
A more complex dispute can result when the boundary has been mislocated for a long period of time, especially if one neighbour has built improvements over the boundary line or uses part of their neighbour’s land to access their own property.
It is important to establish whether there is an easement involved in the boundary dispute. If there is a formal easement marked on the title, then the neighbour benefiting from the easement has a legal and protected right to use their neighbour’s land for a specific purpose (such as to access their own property).
Even if there is no easement on the title, this may not be the end of the matter. If someone has had sole use of part of their neighbour’s property over a long period of time, they may be able to claim what is called “adverse possession” of that part of the land. The rules in each state and territory differ, but simply put, if a person has openly and obviously used land for a number of years (especially if they fenced it so that the true owner did not have access) then they may gain legal ownership.
The law of adverse possession is just one reason that knowing the true boundaries of your property may be important. Adverse possession is a complex area of law, and you should seek legal advice if you think that you may be subject to an adverse possession claim or may wish to make such a claim.
The most important thing to remember when resolving any dispute, and especially a dispute with a neighbour, is to try to create and maintain a good relationship before, during and after the dispute. Property law can be complex but there are professionals who can help you resolve and document an agreement reached with your neighbour to resolve your boundary dispute.