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Property boundaries and rights of access: what are they and why do they matter?

Boundaries determine the extent of any land or buildings you own.  They are, in simple terms, the line which separates your property from that of your neighbours. They may take the form of a wall, a fence, a hedge, a piece of barbed wire or even some other less noticeable feature, such as the edging of a driveway.

So, what happens where you need to cross a boundary line to maintain or repair your property, or even to read your gas and electricity meters?  A recent court case considered this issue and highlights the importance of taking legal advice.  Louis Mathers residential property lawyer with Parnalls in Launceston explains more.

‘The case of Dickinson v Cassillas got the newspapers very excited.  Two neighbours locked in a 15-year battle about rights of access and the significance of a boundary, with legal costs running at more than £200,000.  It seemed incredible that a dispute about one neighbour occasionally walking along the driveway of another to check on the condition of their property and to take meter readings could have got so out of hand.  But it did, and lessons need to be learned’, says Louis Mathers.

Establishing your boundaries

When you buy a property, you need to find out where your boundaries are.  Your solicitor can help you do this by looking at the paperwork for the property, including any plans, and asking you to compare them with what the property looks like on the ground.

Your solicitor will also ask the seller to complete a property information form, which details their understanding of where the boundaries are, whether they are owned outright or shared with someone else, who has assumed responsibility for their maintenance and repair, whether any boundaries have been moved, and, importantly, whether there is (or ever has been) any sort of boundary dispute.

If a discrepancy arises between where the paperwork says the boundaries are, and where the boundaries appear to be, your solicitor will investigate this.  It may be, for example, that over the years the seller has been looking after a plot of land adjoining their property that no one else seems to want.  As a result, they may have moved a fence to incorporate the land into their garden.  If this has happened, they will need to take steps to either have their right to claim the land as their own (and to sell it on to you) recognised in law, or arrange for an insurance policy to be taken out to protect you against the risk of that land being taken away from you at some point in the future if the true owner tries to claim it back.

Establishing your rights

When the court was asked to determine the dispute in Dickinson v Cassillas, it did so by looking at the various rights that were granted to the neighbours when their properties were originally transferred.  By looking at the original transfers, and how the properties were ultimately constructed, the court concluded that Mrs Cassillas did have the right to cross the boundary line and enter onto her neighbour’s land to check the condition of her property, carry out any necessary maintenance or repairs, and inspect her gas and electricity meters.

Your solicitor can help you to ascertain your rights to enter your neighbour’s land by carrying out a similar review.  This is something they will do as part of the purchase process, but is also something they can look at again if a dispute about entitlement arises.

What if my property details are registered with the Land Registry?

People often assume that if their property details are registered with the Land Registry, that the Land Registry title plan will show the exact line of the boundary. Unfortunately, this is usually not the case.

The Land Registry title plan only gives a general indication of where the boundaries for a property are. The Land Registry’s register of title for a property also often fails to mention anything about responsibility for maintenance and repair.

The original transfer and paperwork for the property, together with earlier transfer documents, known collectively as the title deeds, may help to provide more clarification, as can inspecting the property in person and speaking with previous owners.

Dealing with disputes

The steps you should take to deal with a boundary dispute depend on what the dispute is about.  However, most issues concerning boundaries can be resolved by talking the matter through with your neighbour, either directly if you remain on friendly terms or with the help of a solicitor if the relationship has soured.  Sometimes, involving an independent mediator can also help.

Where a boundary dispute is resolved amicably, it is important to document the terms on which resolution has been reached.  This ensures that everybody is clear about how matters should be handled going forward, and provides proof of what was agreed just in case problems arise again.  It will also help to reassure a potential purchaser in the event you decide to sell.

Where a dispute about the location of a boundary is resolved, your neighbour should be asked to consent to details of the agreed boundary line being noted by the Land Registry.  This is so that similar disputes can be avoided in the future by subsequent owners.

General boundary matters, such as replacing a fence or rebuilding a wall, ought to be discussed with your neighbours before work starts.

For advice on boundaries and rights of access, or any other residential property matter, please contact Louis Mathers on 01566 772375 or email mathersl@www.parnalls.com

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