Law guide: Complaints and disputes

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A dispute over the position of a boundary, fence or wall is one of the most common causes of neighbour disputes. The first step to resolving the dispute is to establish exactly where the boundary lies. Your title deeds or the root of title document should normally outline the general boundaries. The boundaries may be different from those outlined on your title deeds or document creating title if:

  • Previous owners have agreed to alter the boundaries.
  • Your neighbour has been using your land continuously for a prescribed period (this can be as short as ten years in England and Wales and 15 years in Northern Ireland). The technical term for this process is adverse possession and the rights your neighbour gets over the property are known as squatter's rights.

It is a good idea to take dated photographs of the existing boundaries when you first move in to a property and take more sets each year in case of any dispute.

Registered land

If your land is registered, the Land Registry or Land Registry of Northern Ireland will have prepared an 'individual register' setting out details of the land you own and a 'title plan', showing the land you own. This is true for all of England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Together these form the record of your 'registered title'. The individual register and your title plan will help you to identify the position of the boundary of your land, but they will not tell you exactly where it is. It's worth noting however that the Land Registry can only record their interpretation of the boundaries. The title from the registry shows the general position of the boundaries; it does not show the exact line of the boundaries.

Your title plan identifies the land you own. The individual register may contain information about the dimensions of the land you own, so you will need to look at the title plan and individual register together when trying to identify your land and its boundaries. The title plan is produced from the information contained in the original title deeds and based on the relevant Ordnance Survey map.

The land included in your registered title will normally be outlined in red on the title plan (however, in Northern Ireland where the title is leasehold, the land will be outlined in green). This outline usually follows lines of detail in the relevant Ordnance Survey map, including features such as walls, fences, hedges and buildings on the ground. If a boundary does not run along a feature shown on the Ordnance Survey map, it will follow a line to show the land you own.

The Land Registry can provide information on who owns walls, fences, hedges and other boundary features only if the deeds have specifically referred to this (most do not). Even when the individual register mentions walls, fences, hedges and other boundary features, these may have changed. For example, new boundary features might have been built and the neighbours at that time might have agreed who was responsible for them. Regardless of any information given in the individual register, it is best to agree with your neighbour who owns a fence, hedge or other feature before doing anything to it.

Unregistered land

In the case of unregistered land, the description of the boundary is to be found in the root of title deed that deals with the present piece of land: this describes the boundaries of the land that the initial vendor intended to sell to the initial purchaser. In England and Wales the description may take the form of words in the deed, or it may be illustrated by a plan that is bound into or attached to the deed. In Northern Ireland, in order documents, the boundaries will be described in writing and illustrated with a plan; in newer documents, the boundaries will be illustrated with a suitable plan, based on the same scales as Ordnance Survey and Land Registry maps. Under this system, a written summary of the relevant document is lodged in the Registry of Deeds with the original document. This summary, known as a 'Memorial', is retained in the Registry and the original document is returned to the person who lodged it. The Registry does not guarantee that any document registered is valid or has any legal effect; it merely records the document's existence and its priority date.

Can the boundary be fixed permanently?

This can be done by a procedure known as 'determining the boundary' in England and Wales or an application to make 'boundaries conclusive' in Northern Ireland. To do this you must apply to the Land Registry and produce:

  • A very precise plan showing where the exact line of the boundary is, in Northern Ireland this should be an Ordnance Survey Map or a map based on an Ordnance Survey Map.
  • In England and Wales, evidence establishing the exact boundary line which corroborates your plan should be provided.
  • In Northern Ireland, the application should be signed by all of the applicants.

To have the best chance of successfully 'determining' the exact line of a boundary, you and your neighbour will need to agree the position of the boundary and make sure that boundary is consistent with the title deeds. You will also need to hire a qualified surveyor to draw up a plan that is acceptable to you and your neighbour.

In England and Wales if you apply to the Land Registry to have the exact line of your boundary determined without the agreement of your neighbour, and the Land Registry thinks you have a case, the Registry will give your neighbours notice of your application. Your neighbours can object to the application until 12 noon on the 20th business day after the date of receipt of notice, or any longer period which the registrar of the Land Registry thinks is appropriate. In Northern Ireland, if the Land Registry deems it necessary, they will serve notice of your application on any affected parties together with a copy of the map provided with the application. The notice will specify the time limit for objecting to the application. If your neighbours object, you and your neighbour should try and agree the matter between yourselves. If you can't agree between yourselves, the dispute will need to be decided by the Adjudicator to Land Registry or a court judge in England and Wales or in Northern Ireland by the Land Tribunal. However, this action is expensive and you could be ordered to pay the legal costs.

If you reach an agreement with your neighbour and the dispute has been a serious one, it is best to record the agreement formally. You can do this by either applying for the precise boundary to be determined or made conclusive, or by setting your agreement down in a formal document. The nature of the document will depend on what you and your neighbour have agreed. For example, if you agree that some registered land that is owned by one of you should now be owned by the other, you may need to use a type of 'transfer' in England and Wales or in Northern Ireland you will need to make an MD1 application or Deed of Rectification to amend the boundaries. If you or your neighbours have a mortgage on the land, you will need to get permission from the lender before going ahead with any agreement or transfer, MD1 application or Deed of Rectification as the lender will be required to provide written consent to the Land Registry.

Whilst this is generally an expensive process, it can be particularly useful in preventing someone obtaining squatter's rights.

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