As 'guest expert' to Horse & Hound magazine in August 2014, Penningtons Manches was asked to provide guidance on how the owner of an equestrian centre could overcome a potential boundary dispute with a neighbour.
Q: One of the fences in a paddock I have recently bought is made of rabbit fencing and barbed wire. I want to replace it with safer post and rails, but the owners of the adjoining field are kicking up a fuss and claiming they own the fence and want to leave it as it is. What is the best way to go about resolving this situation?
A: It pays to tread carefully where boundaries are concerned. A fall-out over fencing issues can soon escalate into a full-blown dispute, damaging neighbourly relations and proving costly to boot.
If a fence separates two properties, it can be difficult to determine exactly which side of the dividing boundary it stands upon.
Penningtons Manches real estate associate Becky Marsden advises finding out whether you can legally prove that the land – and the fence upon it – is yours.
“It is vital to gather as much evidence as possible as to where the boundary is drawn,” she says. “Registered titles from the Land Registry provide the strongest evidence, so obtain copies relating to both properties, if possible, for clarity.
“If the title is unregistered, you may have to rely upon plans attached to the original title deeds. Where the boundary is unclear, other evidence such as aerial photos, statutory declarations and even informal agreements by previous neighbours may be helpful if you intend to make a claim.”
The legal owners of the fence will probably have responsibility for its upkeep and can choose the materials used in its construction. But ownership cannot always be proved and the process can be costly.
“Boundary disputes are often time-consuming and complex, with no definitive result,” warns Becky. “Although the Land Registry holds documents for registered titles electronically and these are available for a nominal fee, the time taken to examine the documents can be weeks – with potentially high legal costs for an uncertain outcome at court.”
The good news is that there are faster, more cost-effective alternatives.
“Employing an impartial mediator to help both parties reach a point of reconciliation is relatively quick, with low costs and the high chance of a satisfactory outcome,” explains Becky. “This might allow the fence to be replaced to a specification that suits both of you. An average three-hour session may cost £150-300 for both parties, dependent on the claim.”
An alternative is a formalised agreement through the Land Registry.
“Costs are dependent upon the time taken but, in addition to that, making an alteration to the register could cost in the region of £20-40,” says Becky. “While this does not solve an ongoing ownership issue by determining the exact legal boundary line, the recorded agreement can be used as evidence in any future dispute.
“There is also a procedure known as ‘determining the boundary’,” she adds. “A qualified surveyor must provide the Land Registry with a detailed plan of where the fence lies, so the boundary can be fixed more precisely. This can be expensive and time-intensive (the application alone costs £90), but the Land Registry will then hold an accurate, detailed outline.”
A final practical option is to build your post and rail just inside the existing fence.
“If the land is registered at the Land Registry, the erection of the fence will not mean that you are moving the boundary from a legal perspective,” says Becky. “Nevertheless, it would be a good idea to send a letter to your neighbour to make it clear that the new fence is being erected solely to protect the horses and does not delineate the boundary. Any dispute will need to be disclosed to a prospective buyer, but the letter should provide the buyer with some comfort.”