Neighbours get into disputes over all manner of legal matters, ranging from the position of a boundary to rights over shared driveways. These disputes are rarely of great monetary value, but they almost always involve deep passions and entrenched positions. The parties regard their respective positions as ‘matters of principle’, and are all too ready to litigate the matter all the way to trial, which leads to legal costs quickly outstripping the monetary value of the dispute.
For some time now, the Courts have taken the view that there are no winners in these cases and have encouraged the parties to try and resolve their differences by alternative means, such as negotiation or mediation. However, it would appear from a recent High Court decision* that the Courts may go even further in future and actually direct the parties to try to engage in mediation.
The case in question involved a disagreement between two neighbours on a suburban street in Liverpool. They had a shared access way and the dispute was over whether one neighbour was entitled to close the gates on the driveway. Although various aspects of the judge’s decision are interesting from a legal point of view, his comments about how such disputes should be conducted are particularly significant.
Firstly, he noted that in the majority of neighbour disputes even the victor is not a winner in financial terms because of the legal costs involved and the impact that the dispute will have on the value of the property. However, it is no longer enough for the Courts simply to encourage the parties to mediate. The parties need to be ‘saved from themselves’, and so the Court should impose a two month stay on proceedings for mediation and direct that the parties must take all reasonable steps to conduct that said mediation.
These suggestions are clearly the culmination of judicial frustration with the way in which neighbour disputes have been dealt with. They are, however, very sensible. Whilst mediation is more expensive than other forms of alternative dispute resolution, such as round-table meetings, the presence of an independent third party (i.e. the mediator) acts as a check on the parties’ passions and helps guide them to a middle ground. What’s more, the costs of mediating will be insignificant in comparison to the costs of taking the dispute all the way to trial.
These suggestions may not be adopted by the Courts generally and even if they aren‘t, any party involved in a neighbour dispute should take note of them and seriously consider mediating the dispute at an early stage.
*Bradley v. Heslin  EWHC 3267 (CH)