Nuisance neighbours have been with us since the dawn of civilization, and nothing has changed in the modern world. All too often even minor disputes turn into bitter and expensive “neighbours-at-war” litigation.
With so many of us now confined to our homes in a time of heightened tension and stress, even the smallest irritations from next door may well be escalating out of control.
Let’s look at what you can do about it if that happens to you. What are your legal rights? How can you avoid the trench warfare of an ongoing feud? We’ll consider some general principles and their application to the common scenarios of noise complaints and tree disputes, with particular mention of some badly-behaved peacocks and a cherry tree at grave risk of being chopped down.
“You can be a good neighbour only if you have good neighbours” (Howard E. Koch)
It looks as if we will still be under “restricted movement” orders for a while – even when we finally get down to Alert Level 2 and who knows when that will be.
Tensions between neighbours are no doubt at an all-time high, and whether you are working from home or just trying to stay sane until our “new normal” starts kicking in, you are no doubt noticing more than ever all those little irritants from next door that would normally fly below your radar or at least be tolerable.
And of course remember it’s a vice-versa situation – your neighbour is in exactly the same position. That’s a recipe for dispute, and going to war with a neighbour is a classic lose-lose option, in court or out of it. Any short-term victory you may think you can achieve will pale against the ongoing trench warfare that will inevitably result.
First prize: A negotiated win-win
Negotiation will always be your best path to a win-win outcome, and whether you open up dialogue with a friendly chat over WhatsApp or a socially-distanced masks-on discussion over your boundary wall, here is one bit of advice that will substantially increase your chances of a happy outcome for everyone: Understand your legal rights before you start negotiating!
Should your negotiations come to naught, consider as your next step mediation, arbitration or official intervention (more on possible municipal or police intervention options below). Remember that if you live in a “community scheme” such as a sectional title development or a Homeowners’ Association community, the CSOS (Community Schemes Ombud Service) provides a dispute resolution service to assist with a wide range of community disputes.
Then – and this should normally be your last option only to be resorted to when all other avenues have failed – you have the legal route, normally in the form of an interdict application and/or damages claim.
How can our law help you? It’s a balancing act…
The principles laid down by our courts in dealing with neighbour disputes over many years are firmly rooted in common sense. You are entitled to the use and enjoyment of your property – so long as you act lawfully – without unreasonable interference. “An interference” our courts have held, “will be unreasonable when it ceases to be a ‘to-be-expected-in-the-circumstances’ interference and is of a type which does not have to be tolerated under the principle of ‘give and take, live and let live’.”
As the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) put it in 2016: “Nuisance involves the unreasonable use of property by one neighbour to the detriment of another.” It’s a balancing act between competing rights – yours and those of the other property owners around you.
Peacocks, a cherry tree, and the court’s wide discretion
It is also difficult to set out too much in the way of hard and fast rules here, for as our courts have put it “modern conditions require the exercise of a wide discretion in the adjustment of neighbour relationships”.
Thus the High Court, in a 2013 case involving nuisance peacocks, a “much loved” cherry tree on the boundary of two properties and in danger of being chopped down, and a partially-demolished boundary wall, both quoted and applied that principle with an order encapsulating a resolution of the neighbourly disputes in a detailed and pragmatic manner. The peacocks for example had made a major nuisance of themselves by being noisy, messy and destructive trespassers (they had damaged expensive vehicles by pecking at them when they saw themselves reflected in the rear-view mirrors and highly polished metal surfaces). The court order included both authority for them to be removed by either the municipality or by the SPCA (there being no municipal permit to keep them as required by the municipality’s bye-laws), and an admonition to find them “good and lawful homes”. The cherry tree on the other hand is now protected by an interdict against its removal, with detailed instructions in the court order as to the reconstruction of the boundary wall next to it.
Bear in mind therefore that what is said below is of necessity a simplified and brief summary only – every case will be different, our courts will take into account a whole range of factors in deciding a dispute, and in many instances technical questions of “wrongfulness”, “fault”, “moving to the nuisance” and so on may apply. If your dispute gravitates towards legal action, specific advice is essential!
What is a “nuisance”?
The range of potential disputes falling into the “neighbour law” and “nuisance” categories is wide. Some examples (from the SCA again – emphasis supplied) – “repulsive odours, smoke and gases drifting over the plaintiff’s property from the defendant’s land, water seeping onto the plaintiffs property, leaves from the defendant’s trees falling onto the plaintiff’s premises, slate being washed down-river onto a plaintiff’s land, causing a disturbing noise, causing a common wall to become unstable by piling soil up against it, overhanging branches and foliage, an electrified fence on top of a communal garden wall, blue wildebeest transmitting disease to cattle on neighbouring ground, and occupants of structures on neighbouring land allegedly causing a nuisance.”
Two common areas of dispute – noise and trees
Let’s have a closer look at how those general principles have been applied to two of the more common areas of dispute –
- Noise: If barking dogs, power tools, loud music or the like are making your life a misery – keeping you awake at night perhaps, or (a common concern in this time of remote working) unable to concentrate on that business project or to participate in your daily Zoom “office” meeting – sooner or later you will need to take action.
Particularly relevant here are the various national statutes and local bye-laws dealing with noise pollution. Contact your local municipality or the police for help if you need to. If you live in a complex, Body Corporate or Home Owners Association rules and regulations will probably come into play as well. SAPS should respond to serious violations of our anti-noise laws, and just a warning visit from a blue uniform might solve your problem once and for all.
If you end up in a legal fight, our courts will take into account factors such as “the type of noise, the degree of its persistence, the locality involved and the times when the noise is heard”. As we said above, every case will be different.
- Trees: If your neighbour’s trees are damaging your property (common complaints relate to boundary walls, underground pipes, building foundations, driveways and the like), or are causing a nuisance in the form of falling leaves or branches, or are blocking your views/depriving you of light, you are once again left with no hard and fast rules. A court will look at what is “objectively reasonable” in all the circumstances. As a general rule, don’t count on much sympathy from a court if damage is minor and easily repaired, if the nuisance caused is controllable by you with regular maintenance (clearing leaves from gutters and so on) or if your only complaint is loss of your views. That last aspect is a whole separate debate with many twists and turns, but all based on the concept that you will have no automatic right to a view.
Where you are dealing with an “overhanging branches” issue, old common law principles will usually apply unless factors such as local bye-laws, heritage protection of older trees etc come into play. You will generally have a right to cut overhanging branches back to your property line if the neighbour refuses to do so and to keep or dispose of the branches if your neighbour declines to take them.