Where disputes over noise, overhanging trees, boundaries and access could often be resolved over the fence or a cuppa, I believe that a lack of community spirit has made people more prone to seeking legal advice before even discussing an issue with their neighbour.
A recent study showed that only 12 per cent of us can confidently say that we know our neighbours. We get into our cars and drive to the shop if we need something rather than pop next door and ask for a cup of sugar. It seems more and more of us are forgetting what it means to foster good neighbourship and, as a result, disputes are quick to escalate.
What we are witnessing is a cultural change in the way what some might consider minor disputes between neighbours are handled.
Whatever the reason, people are beginning to struggle when it comes to handling simple interactions face to face. In that context, the thought of asking a neighbour to trim their hedge or, worse, ask them about their plans for that extension which is now taking shape is somehow less appealing than asking a solicitor to write a formal letter.
In a recent case of two council tenants, the court ended up banning a mother-of-four from speaking to her neighbour for two years and ordered her to pay £370. The conflict began when her neighbour complained about where her bin bags were left.
At the other end of the social spectrum, Channel 4’s Posh Neighbours at War is drawing a crowd eager to watch residents of London’s most well-heeled neighbourhoods battle it out over noise, renovations and even a candy-striped paint job.
Perhaps the appeal lies in how we all recognise the uncomfortable essence of what it feels like to disagree with the person next door.
Only recently, a gardener chased his neighbours with a chainsaw in a row over their shared fence. The attempted assault cost him £600 and time behind bars.
Research by garden furniture retailer Rattan Direct found that nearly a third of people have had disagreements with their neighbours. Noise complaints top the list of issues, followed by broken fences, boundaries and untidy gardens. The findings mirror what I’m seeing day to day and, although clearly there are instances where a strongly worded letter is required, I am frequently surprised to discover how often people have not even tried to talk it over before escalating the problem to professionals.
In many cases, we are able to resolve neighbour disputes during formal mediation; an avenue I far prefer to court.
When trying to solve neighbour disputes, I would usually start with a negotiation process. This implies that both parties will gain from the discussion so be prepared to compromise – something we also seem to find harder and harder.
If that fails, a neutral third party can be invited to oversee proceedings and facilitate an agreeable outcome. These are skilled professionals – trained to reduce the hostility between the two parties. Finally, we may decide to appoint a third party to adjudicate.
For those willing to have a stab at an old-fashioned conversation over an issue that, objectively, really might not be such a big deal, I can promise it will be cheaper to invite the people next door around for a sit-down than issuing legal proceedings.
If you are still determined to have your day in court, bear in mind the couple who spent £4,000 and two years battling their neighbour over the sound of the next-door pond. The magistrates threw out their case after a three-hour trial.
The courts are there to rule on single issues. And there are absolutely situations and cases where the only way forward is to instruct professionals. But when the case is finished and your lawyers have moved on, your neighbours are still the same.
I make a living from helping individuals and companies resolve disputes and am happy to do so, however small the problem may seem. But I still encourage people to put the kettle on and at least try to talk to their neighbours before calling me. You might be surprised what a difference a personal call makes.
Arif Khalfe is a dispute resolution solicitor at law firm Simpson Millar.