Boundary disputes can last for years and have a terrible impact on those involved.
There is a scene in Shakespeare’s Hamlet where Hamlet is on his way to exile in England, and meets an army captain named Fortinbras.
He discovers that Fortinbras and his army are marching to Poland to regain ‘a little patch of ground that hath no profit in it but the name’.
He is in disbelief when he learns that Fortinbras and his army are willing to fight and die over a plot of land that is so insignificant in size it is not even large enough to bury someone!
It brings to mind the disputes over land boundaries often arise in the agricultural community.
Many farmers feel a deep connection with the land, and naturally seek to protect their rights to the property. This sometimes comes at the cost of huge financial resources.
Often, the area of the land in dispute is very small, but litigation may ensue because of its critical location or strategic importance to the owner concerned.
Boundary disputes often arise due to a change in the landscape, whether that be the erosion or deposition of debris by a river, or the uncontrolled growth of hedging.
As time passes, and as the area of the land changes, people can sometimes simply forget what’s theirs and what is their neighbour’s, especially after a change in ownership resulting from a premature death, or an estate that is left unadministered for years.
Boundary disputes can also arise over shared access ways, rights to light, drainage rights, overhanging trees, air rights, squatter’s rights etc.
Irrespective of the reason for the dispute, they have the potential to last for years, and have a terrible impact on the lives of all those concerned.
The relevant legislation dealing with boundary disputes is The Land and Conveyancing (reform) Act 2009.
There are many different types of disputes, which could arise from many circumstances.
An example would be where adjoining farms are separated by a ditch and hedge.
If a dispute arises, the court will work off a presumption that the property boundary is on the opposite edge of the ditch from the hedge.
This is based on the principle that the landowner would have stood on the boundary, facing towards his or her land, dug the ditch on his or her own land, piled the soil from the digging of the ditch on his or her home side to form a bank, and planted a hedge on the bank.
Another example of a source of dispute is where a river or stream forms the boundary between farms.
There is generally a presumption under Irish law that ownership extends to the centre of the riverbed, unless it is owned by another.
The best advice to any farmer at the outset is to avoid litigation, at all costs.
Ensure one engages a competent engineer or surveyor to check boundaries before purchasing property.
Ensure one marks clearly the boundaries of his or her property on the ground.
It is important to attempt to remain amicable with the neighbouring landowner, to resolve the dispute out of court.
Arbitration is an alternative to court for resolving disputes, and can be beneficial in a boundary dispute situation, due to the reduced costs compared to court, and should always be given serious consideration.
It is important to weigh up the cost of court, and the value of the land, and make an informed decision.
A possible dispute over a boundary could have wide reaching consequences for the owner’s property.
It could increase or decrease the value of one’s property.
This is why, in the event of a dispute, sufficient investigations as to title must be carried out.
It is advisable to seek expert professional help from both a competent surveyor and a solicitor.
The primary source for resolving a boundary dispute is the title deeds.
A judge may decide a dispute on the balance of probabilities, after hearing both sides to the dispute.
In some cases, it may not be justifiable to risk going to court, considering the vast expense.
There is always the possibility that one might lose when in court.
The best advice to famers is to do your best to avoid litigation, and to attempt to resolve the dispute with your neighbour.
In the event that the matter cannot be resolved amicably, then one can make the decision to bring the matter to court.
Karen Walsh, from a farming background at Grenagh, Co Cork, is a solicitor practicing in Walsh & Partners, Solicitors and Commissioners for Oaths, 17, South Mall, Cork.
While every care is taken to ensure accuracy of information contained in this article, solicitor Karen Walsh does not accept responsibility for errors or omissions howsoever arising, and you should seek legal advice in relation to your particular circumstances at the earliest possible time.
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