The “economic madness” of boundary disputes
  • 25th Mar 2015
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The case of Acco Properties Limited v Severn provided an opportunity for the High Court to let off some steam about boundary disputes.

Judge Simon Barker QC was heard to comment “I do not… accept that the days are gone when a party can litigate over a tiny strip of land, although I would certainly agree that it is usually economic madness to do so, but a person remains entitled at law to protect and preserve that which is his or hers.”

Litigation over boundaries can be complicated and very expensive.  Boundary disputes are usually personal rather than business disputes which can be left behind at the end of the working day. Emotions run high and parties become completely entrenched in their positions. However, it is important to think carefully before challenging a boundary.

Acco Properties did not lay down any new legal principles but it did provide a useful summary of the key points the Court will consider when determining a boundary:

  • It is always vital to remember that the red lines on Land Registry title plans only show “general” boundaries and not the exact line of a boundary. This is usually made clear on the Land Registry plans themselves.
  • Ordnance Survey Maps are usually no more than a general guide to boundary features.
  • The starting point will always be the language of the conveyance or transfer to the property and the plan attached to it.
  • If the conveyance does not clarify the issue then consideration will be given to extrinsic evidence such as what features might have existed at the time of the conveyance.
  • Evidence of the behaviour of the parties after the conveyance can be submitted if it helps show what the parties might have intended at the time.
  • Evidence of features on the ground which appeared after the conveyance are less likely to be relevant.
  • Even where the boundary might be identified by the conveyance, this can be subject to rights of adverse possession, ie, squatter’s rights.
  • Boundary agreements do not have to be in writing as they “clarify” a boundary rather than transfer a legal interest.  They can therefore be verbal although as with all verbal agreements the details will be more difficult to prove than a written agreement.
  • The Court will consider what a reasonable layman might think he was buying.

As Churchill said, it is better to “jaw jaw” than to “war war”.  Litigation is a matter of last resort: always try and talk to your opponent and avoid litigation.

If talking does not work, then alternative dispute resolution (ADR) such as mediation or expert determination should be proposed. 

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) has a boundary dispute service that allows both parties to submit their case to an independent surveyor for an opinion. The surveyor will consider the parties’ submissions and give an indication of where the boundary sits.  

The surveyor’s decision is not legally binding on the parties, but is indicative of what the Court’s decision might be and can often save parties significant time and money if it leads to an early settlement. 

We have experience in dealing with and helping to resolve a wide range of boundary disputes.  If you would like to discuss a particular dispute please contact us.