A 40 per cent rise in the number of people seeking legal advice for fencing disputes is being driven by property development and a shift away from regular engagement with neighbours, South Australia’s legal aid organisation has said.
Figures obtained by the ABC show there have been 15,479 civil proceedings lodged in court under the Fences Act in the past five years.
Chris Boundy from the Legal Services Commission of South Australia said in that time there was a 40 per cent increase in the number of people contacting the service for legal advice about fencing disputes.
“I think a lot of the disputes centre around the fact that we seem to have lost the art of talking to people,” Mr Boundy said.
“We often encourage neighbours in the first instance to talk to each other but there are some myths, for example people think that if they absorb the whole cost of a new fence that they can decide exactly and entirely how it’s going to be. That’s not true.”
Some of the most common suburbs for fencing disputes are Prospect and Morphett Vale, with the most inquiries coming from residents in those areas last year.
Mr Boundy said increased development may be one of the reasons behind the rise in disputes.
“I think partly it’s because we’re not used to engagement with our neighbours. I think we’re much more keen to send a text message than talk to our neighbours,” he said.
“Another reason is that as subdivisions have occurred in established suburbs, sometimes the building moves right out to the boundary line. It’s only then that it’s found there is an alignment problem or a survey is needed or it becomes expensive.
“Also, when people want to build on a boundary line they need their neighbour’s permission to come on to their property to do the building work and we get a lot of inquiries about that because either an assumption is made and builders are walking on their property or the neighbour is unreasonably withholding permission to do work on the boundary line.”
Mr Boundy said it would be a “great shame” if neighbourly relations soured as a result of a bitter dispute over a fence.
“Unfortunately some of them do get ugly but it’s more a matter of people having to cool down a bit, come and establish what their rights are and find out whether they can go to community mediation for example or whether they should lodge a formal notice in court and take it that way,” Mr Boundy said.
“We still encourage people as far as possible to try to reach agreement, after all hopefully they are going to live there a long time. If you have a bad dispute with your neighbour it actually puts you off living there and that would be a great shame.”
Arguing over money and design
“My neighbour cut spikes on top and put screws through the tin to stop cats jumping it. I cut them all off,” Jamie Kay posted on ABC Adelaide’s Facebook page.
“Our neighbour’s tree grew into our back fence, pushing it over. They refused to do anything about it, despite us speaking to them about it on numerous occasions and both of us having dogs who could escape through the hole it created,” Sophie Sruhan wrote.
She said she got quotes for a new fence when it became apparent the existing fence couldn’t be fixed.
“They then refused to pay for half or even a quarter of the cost. We eventually managed to convince them to cut the tree back on their side, then we paid for the new fence, making it as high as possible,” she said.
“On the day of installation, they agreed to make sure their dog was kept inside and their driveway clear for building materials to be brought through … they left the dog outside, a car in the driveway and left the house for the day, delaying the whole thing. When it was done, they never thanked us, so we never speak to them now.”
Melissa Preusker said she wanted to replace a fence with “holes right across it and almost collapsing” but her neighbour disagreed, saying it only needed to be repaired.
“We paid for the replacement. His main worry was how he would afford it being on a pension, and he also wanted a tall fence like we previously had, which we were happy with too. Now it’s going to last another 100 years hopefully,” she said.