Boundary disputes and mediation may, at first glance, seem like an oxymoron.
“Mediation is only for people who get on, or whose disagreements are minor isn’t it?”
“Surely, boundary disputes are simply about the law?”
“And anyway, me and my neighbour have such huge differences of opinions that there can’t be any middle ground. It’s all or nothing.”
The reality is far different. Of course mediation works where people have minor disagreements, but it also works where they are intensely polarised and seeming stuck in a vortex of conflict.
An Englishman’s home is his castle
Neighbour disputes come in many forms. The most common are those involving noise or something that’s causing a nuisance. At their lowest level, neighbours will usually be able to sort these matters out between themselves.
Where neighbours don’t get on so well, and communication is a problem, the local authority or a quiet word from the police may be all that’s needed to settle the problem. As for using a court to sort things out, there is always a risk of losing. It can be expensive and it is rarely quick. For these reasons, lower level disputes tend not to end up in court.
True boundary disputes, where the rights of ownership or use of a piece of land are disputed, are less common. But when they happen, they seem to take on a life of their own. Lawyers often become involved. What might have started as a problem can escalate into a full-blown court dispute costing tens of thousands of pounds and taking years to deal with.
Even if you can afford court, and you find that the judge prefers your story to your neighbour’s, you can rest assured that any poor relationship that existed beforehand will now be tens times worse. Court will not make it more comfortable for you or your neighbour to live next door to each other.
The different approaches of mediation and the legal system
The legal system addresses problems in a very different way to mediation. To begin with, lawyers tend to keep the disputants apart. This means disputants don’t get an opportunity to really tell their story to each other of hear the other person’s point of view. Mediators, on the other hand, get the disputants together in the same room (providing it’s safe to do so). This allows them to listen and be heard and this in turn helps them understand what they might need to do in order to reach a settlement.
Lawyers tend to communicate through correspondence – email or letter. Correspondence is slow, easily misinterpreted and readily misunderstood. Correspondence is more likely to escalate a dispute than resolve it because of this. Contrast that with mediation. If something is misunderstood or misinterpreted during a conversation, there’s an opportunity to clarify things immediately. You don’t have to wait until a lawyer’s letter written in reply to a seemingly inflammatory point has been replied to itself (and sent to you with a letter of explanation).
The other major difference between the way mediation and the legal system work is in the final decision making. The legal system gives the power to make decisions to judges. Or if things settle before they reach a judge it will usually be because the lawyers decide to settle.
In mediation, it’s the disputants who make the final decision. Not the lawyers and certainly not the mediator. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, disputants assisted by a single professional reach settlements far quicker than those who use professionals employing adversarial methods.
The benefits of mediating where there’s a boundary dispute
Boundary disputes are rarely clear cut. If the law was straightforward and clear there certainly wouldn’t be much need for lawyers and courts. On the other hand, if the law’s not straightforward and clear, why would anyone want to leave things up to a judge?.
Most mediators in most disciplines – divorce, parenting civil, workplace and commercial – know from our own experience that most disputes have a communication problem at their heart. Neighbour and boundary disputes are no different.
In a boundary dispute mediation, we might suggest that a surveyor joint the process in order to help each party understand the technicalities. We might also suggest that the parties’ lawyers join the mediation if we think it would help.
Unlike a court case which can last anything from several months to well over a year and cost tens of thousands of pounds, a mediation is more likely to take several weeks and cost a fraction of the amount.
So if you’ve got a neighbour or boundary dispute, start mediation with Start Mediation and start looking forward to the day when you don’t have to talk to your neighbour through gritted teeth.