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Give your neighbours support if you want to stay out of court

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It is well known that neighbours can generate a certain lack of synergy. This territorial friction has been harnessed by the new breed of 'factumentary'-style television producer to make programmes such as Neighbours from Hell . These, apart from recording some of the lowest forms of human behaviour, have identified a new suburban villain, the vigorous leylandii bush.

These disputes almost invariably end up in court and give rise to some of the least desirable litigation (professionally speaking), combining, as it does, high emotion, loss of all reason and very little money. All of which creates fertile ground for more television viewing. And we await the sequel, Neighbours from Hell in Court (possibly even Neighbours from Hell on Appeal, followed by NFH: The Costs Hearing, concluding with NFH: The Repossession Order - well, at least then they would not be neighbours any more).

Although not all neighbour disputes concern overgrown hedges, they can range from the mundane to the dramatic and the facts of Holbeck Hall Hotel v Scarborough Borough Council (2000) were nothing if not dramatic.

Over three days, the owners of Holbeck Hall Hotel, perched on the Scarborough cliffs, watched as the cliff, their gardens and then part of the hotel itself collapsed into the sea.

The cliff area was owned by Scarborough Borough Council. There had been previous collapses, some investigation and some remedial works, but for Scarborough to have been aware of the full extent of the danger it would have had to have carried out more comprehensive investigations, which it had not done.

The hoteliers claimed that Scarborough owed them, as a neighbour, a duty to look after its own land and to prevent it from causing a danger.

The duty arose from the tort of nuisance, that arcane area of the law with its foundations back in the 19th century, developed to protect landowners'property rights.

Scarborough argued that there was a difference between positively doing something wrong and simply failing to do anything at all.

The Court of Appeal was unimpressed by this distinction and decided that if owners know of a potential hazard they do owe their neighbours a duty to do something about it and to, as we say, abate the nuisance.

In Scarborough's case, however, the court found that it would not be reasonable to hold them responsible for damage that was out of all proportion to anything it could have foreseen.

Scarborough did not know of the catastrophic nature of the hazard and could not have found out without extensive investigations by its experts. Even if it had known of the potential scale of the problem, it would not have been its responsibility to carry out expensive remedial works: at most, it ought to have warned its neighbour of the risk.

In Rees v Skerrett (2001) the same principle was at work at the other end of the drama scale.

The owner of l4A Hastings Street in Plymouth, a terraced property, demolished the building and was required by a local authority statutory demolition order to shore up the neighbours' property and to protect it from the weather. Such attempts as were made were inadequate and the neighbours complained that the withdrawal of lateral support provided by No 14A and wind pressure to the exposed wall had caused structural movement and cracking to their property.

Again, the court had to decide whether the owner of 14A knew of the risk of damage likely to result from the demolition, if the weatherproofing works were not carried out. The court considered that lateral support, and what was described as 'wind support', were all part and parcel of the support which one of two adjoining buildings provided to another. Before the demolition, the wall was supported and was stable; afterwards it was not supported and was not stable. Unlike the Scarborough case, the court thought it was entirely reasonable to hold the owner of No 14A responsible for the subsequent damage to the neighbours'property.

As these cases admirably demonstrate, for some neighbours a towering Cupressocyparis leylandii should probably be the least of their worries: a point that will, no doubt, be completely wasted on the television producers.

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