Living in close quarters with our neighbours is not always easy. Over time, there is likely to be at least one issue about which you and your neighbours have a dispute (it may be about trees, dogs, noise, parking or fences; the list is almost endless). In most cases, your best outcome will be to find a way to resolve those issues and still be able to live alongside your neighbour. Involving the law and lawyers should always be your last resort.
Legal disputes between neighbours are likely to be expensive, time consuming and detrimental to the relationship between the parties. Even if you are successful with taking legal action, neighbours can sometimes wage an endless war that could make living in your home an ongoing nightmare. Clear and open communication between neighbours with the aim of working out a dispute in a cooperative and friendly way is more likely to bring about a long-term outcome that all parties are able to live with.
However, if you cannot avoid a dispute with your neighbour, it is important to understand your legal position as a home-owner and neighbour, and to be aware of which dispute resolution options are available to you.
The Dispute Settlement Centre of Victoria (DSCV) is a division of the Victorian Government Department of Justice and Regulation. The DSCV provides Victorians with a range of free and confidential dispute resolution services. Using DSCV services to resolve a dispute is often a cheaper, fairer and simpler alternative to taking disputes through the courts.
Before initiating any action, visit the DSCV website (at www.disputes.vic.gov.au). It features a wide range of useful how-to videos with tips on simple and effective ways to avoid and/or resolve neighbourhood disputes.
Do not over-react to what may be a one-off event. Loud noise from the neighbours’ annual party may cause sleep loss and irritation, but think carefully before making it an issue of dispute with your neighbours, who may usually be quiet and considerate people. It is not worth destroying a long-term relationship or peaceful co-existence with your neighbours unless there is serious ongoing nuisance, disturbance or disruption.
Generally speaking, neighbours have the right to use and enjoy their property as they please. So long as your neighbour is not interfering unreasonably with your enjoyment of your property, they are entitled to go about their lives free from interference. Problems arise when the rights of neighbours come into conflict, such as the right of one person to play music at full volume at 3 am versus their neighbour’s right to peace and quiet.
The first step in dealing with any neighbourhood issues is simply to talk. Keep the approach low key and pleasant. Remember, your neighbour does not see or hear things from your perspective, so may not even be aware that their activity is the source of concern or irritation for you.
Visit the DSCV website for simple and effective strategies for talking to neighbours.
Before talking to your neighbour about your concerns, take a step back and:
• ask yourself if you have been doing anything that may have caused annoyance for your neighbour;
• try to look at the situation from your neighbour’s point of view. Ask yourself, “Why are they doing this? Would it be easy for them to stop or change what they are doing?”. When made aware of what, to you, is a real problem, your neighbour may be willing to stop or modify the cause of your concerns. This would be a great outcome for you both.
If you are unable to resolve your dispute via an informal “over the fence” chat, but you still wish to deal with the matter between yourselves, writing a letter to your neighbour that outlines your concerns is worth considering. When composing such a letter you should clearly identify the problem, its impact, possible solutions and the preference of resolution without further formal action. Try to avoid using an adversarial style of language or portraying yourself as the wronged party.
It is sometimes difficult to reach agreement between just the two people involved, especially if you have vastly different “takes” on the issue. It can be useful to get a neutral third party, such as a mediator, involved to help you both to work through the issues and try to reach a mutually acceptable compromise (see “Mediation”).
If the matter still cannot be resolved between the parties, making a complaint about your neighbour’s actions to a responsible authority can be an effective and low-cost way of dealing with the problem. Your local council has many by-laws and enforcement obligations in relation to neighbourhood disputes such as noise, pets, trees, nuisance, planning and pollution. The Environment Protection Authority Victoria (www.epa.vic.gov.au) and the police also receive complaints on neighbour disputes.
Before making a formal complaint, consider the impact of the complaint on both parties. In particular, are the benefits of escalating the dispute to involve an outside authority worth the potential detrimental affect such a complaint may have on the ongoing relationship between the neighbours?
Taking your neighbour to court can be expensive and complicated and should always be a last resort. You can find out about the simpler, quicker and cheaper alternatives to court at the DSCV website.
Mediation is a voluntary, confidential and informal problem-solving process facilitated by an impartial mediator. It is widely used to resolve matters before going to court and can also help to resolve most neighbourhood disagreements.
In a mediation, parties who are in dispute meet together and with the guidance of impartial mediators:
• discuss the issue in dispute;
• identify options;
• consider solutions; and
• work towards a mutually acceptable agreement.
The mediator runs the mediation session and the parties control what is discussed and agreed to.
Mediation works because it:
• is a positive process that encourages cooperative problem-solving and preserves relationships;
• allows people to have a say in resolving their dispute;
• can look at all aspects of the problem, not just the immediate issues; and
• enables people to hear directly from each other and gain a better understanding of each other’s needs.
In mediation, one or more mediators who are not involved in the dispute in any way help the parties to reach their own agreement. The mediators do not make any decisions about who is right or wrong, or about who should be doing or not doing anything. They must always remain neutral in the way that they assist the parties to a dispute to reach their own agreement.
Before taking part in a mediation, the parties usually reach an agreement about certain aspects of how it will be run, such as where it will take place, when, and who should attend.
All mediation sessions are private and confidential. Nothing said by any of the parties in mediation can be repeated for any other purpose, without that person’s permission. Nothing can be used in later court proceedings (if the dispute is not settled and ends up in court), unless everyone who attended the session agrees.
During the mediation, each party has their say, tells their side of the story and hears – often for the first time – the other person’s point of view. This is a very useful exercise and is helped by the mediators, who summarise both stories and help define the issues in dispute.
The mediator will help the parties discuss each of the issues, one at a time, and explore ways to settle differences.
Any agreement reached in mediation comes from the parties themselves. It is not for the mediator to impose decisions or remedies. They cannot say who is right or wrong, who is at fault, or what should be done to fix a situation, and they cannot award costs or penalties.
The parties to a dispute will often put their agreement in writing, so that each is clear about their obligations and responsibilities following mediation. If the mediation has been successful, the parties will each go away satisfied that their concerns have been heard and understood, and with a practical solution to which they have all agreed.
Sometimes mediation may not be suitable because people are unable or unwilling to negotiate, particularly if there has been a history of violence between the disputants, or if an intervention order prohibits interaction between them.
There are a number of agencies that provide assistance in resolving disputes (e.g. see “Dispute Settlement Centre of Victoria”). Some services (e.g. those provided by the DSCV) are free; others may charge means-tested fees.
The Dispute Settlement Centre of Victoria (DSCV) has been set up by the Victorian Government Department of Justice and Regulation to help individuals resolve disputes quickly, fairly and cheaply. It provides dispute resolution advice, a mediation service, referrals to other specialist services, and formal conflict training programs.
The DSCV helps people to find solutions to a range of disputes, including:
• common neighbourhood disputes involving fences, trees, animals, noise and drainage;
• disputes about inappropriate behaviour, including bullying, harassment and abuse;
• interpersonal workplace disputes;
• disputes within committees, clubs and incorporated associations;
• civil disputes involving matters under $40 000 and other matters otherwise referred by the Magistrates’ Court;
• interpersonal disputes involving technology (e.g. Facebook).
Such disputes might arise between people who:
• live next door or in the same locality;
• share the same house (e.g. co-tenants in dispute about unpaid bills);
• belong to the same club or organisation;
• work together; or
• are members of the same owners corporation.
The process for getting help from the DSCV to try and resolve your differences with your neighbours is as follows.
1 Telephone the DSCV and speak with a Dispute Assessment Officer. Explain the details of the type of problem you are having. The Dispute Assessment Officer has probably dealt with a similar situation in the past and may suggest practical actions you can take to resolve the issues yourself.
2 The Dispute Assessment Officer may decide that your situation is one that could benefit from having both parties sit down, with neutral persons (mediators), to try to “sort it out” through mediation.
3 If it appears that mediation is likely to be beneficial, the Dispute Assessment Officer will write to the other person involved and invite them to contact the DSCV. If the other person accepts the invitation, the Dispute Assessment Officer will arrange a suitable time and place for a mediation to be held.
Mediation is a voluntary process. There is nothing you can do if the other person does not agree to take part in mediation. They cannot be forced to mediate.
Mediations are scheduled during business hours and can be held in most regional centres throughout Victoria, as well as in more remote locations when required by the parties.
The DSCV selects mediators who are most suitable to a particular dispute and have the most likelihood of success in working with the particular problem and people involved. Ideally, the mediators reflect the ages, outlook and culture of the people with whom they are dealing. The DSCV has a large panel of trained mediators drawn from many different communities and backgrounds and every effort is made to ensure the right “match”. Interpreters are provided free to assist with language difficulties.
The DSCV does not give legal advice. This should be obtained from either a private lawyer, Victoria Legal Aid or a community legal centre (see How legal aid can help, and Legal services that can help, for a listing of these services). It is a good idea to get legal advice about your dispute, whether or not you decide to use the services offered by the DSCV.
The DSCV’s website features how-to videos with simple and effective strategies for dealing with neighbours and neighbourhood disputes.
More information about the DSCV and the services it offers can be found on DSCV’s website (www.disputes.vic.gov.au).