Disputes with neighbours have a way of getting horribly out of hand, but legal advice taken at an early stage can help to draw the venom and save incalculable heartache and money in the long run. A case on point concerned flat dwellers who for years engaged in a titanic struggle over a few feet of garden.
The dispute centred on the small front garden of a semi-detached house which had been split into two flats. It included a lightwell area, which enabled the sun's rays to penetrate the lower flat. That area had long been the focus of acrimony between the owner of the lower flat, who also owned the building's freehold, and the long leaseholder of the upper flat.
After the freeholder carried out extensive works – which involved lowering the level of the lightwell and installing French windows – the tenant of the upper flat launched proceedings. In ruling on the matter, a judge noted that, given the long-standing differences between the two men and the strength of feeling involved, their oral evidence had proved of little or no assistance in resolving the issues.
The judge found that, on a true interpretation of the tenant's lease, the lightwell fell within his property. The freeholder argued without success that he had agreed with a previous tenant of the upper flat that the boundary would be changed, leaving him in lawful possession of the lightwell.
The works carried out by the freeholder thus amounted to an act of trespass which had dispossessed the tenant of the lightwell. The tenant was thus in principle entitled to an order requiring, amongst other things, reinstatement of the lightwell to its pre-works condition and its return to his possession. The judge, however, found that a financial remedy represented a fairer outcome on the particular facts of the case and ordered the freeholder to pay the tenant £24,900 in damages.