Boundary Disputes Psychology

Jon Maynard Boundaries Ltd, Boundary Demarcation and Disputes, Rights of Way, Expert Witness, Chartered Land Surveyor


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Psychology of neighbours in boundary disputes

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Behaviour types
Boundary Disputes and Harassment
What is the real problem?

"The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited;
he must not make himself a nuisance to other people"

John Stuart Mill
I very much doubt that he had either boundary disputes or rights of way in mind, but if everyone could find it within themselves to remember that the rights they assert for themselves might impinge upon the rights of their neighbours, and make allowance accordingly, then there might be far fewer boundary disputes.


If you are in a dispute with your neighbour, whether over the position of your common boundary or some other matter, then your selection of an appropriate method of resolving the matter can only be assisted by an understanding of what is driving your neighbour's actions in his complaint against you. Here are the main behavioural types, one of which will be exhibited by your neighbour. If you understand which behavioural type your neighbour is displaying, then you can strengthen your position by choosing which behavioural type to adopt yourself.

It will also help if you can find what lies behind your neighbour's complaint to identify what is the real problem that needs addressing. Sometimes a neighbour is exercised by an issue that has nothing to do with the boundary, and they think that this issue involves you in some way, but they are unable to bring the issue to a resolution. When all else fails, a boundary dispute is the one sure way to get your attention.

Behaviour types

1.    Anything for a Quiet Life

It can be very tempting to just concede whatever your neighbour wants. It is quick, it is cheap, and it may minimise the emotional and psychological damage that you could suffer in a boundary dispute.

Disadvantages: How do you know that, because your neighbour was given such an easy victory this time, he won't come back for more easy pickings in the future?

2.    The Man (or woman) of Principle

The Man of Principle knows what is right and what is wrong, and he won't tolerate wrong-doing in others. He knows where his boundary is, he believes in justice, and he won't quit until he sees that justice is done (or until he finds out that justice is, on this occasion, not on his side).

Don't be a Man of Principle when you could be a Negotiator and resolve your dispute much more quickly, cheaply and with far less bother.

If you find yourself in dispute with a neighbour who is a Man of Principle then everything becomes very black-and-white and you probably have only two options:

  • adopt the Anything for a Quiet Life mentality, or
  • settle in for a potentially long and expensive resolution of the dispute conducted in a formal manner, such as mediation or a county court trial.

3.    The Negotiator

The Negotiator will first of all try to establish precisely what the problem is (see below for some frequently encountered problems). He will then want to understand the problem and the means of rectifying it. Next he will consider both what he is seeking from a resolution and what he is prepared to concede in order to resolve the problem.

The Negotiator will then make an opening offer to the other party. If the other party is also a Negotiator, then he will make a response and a counteroffer. The Negotiator will consider the response and counteroffer, and make a further offer.

The aim is to arrive at a settlement that both parties can accept, and preferably a settlement that allows both parties to feel that they have gained something from the negotiation (the win-win situation).

The purpose of negotiating your way out of a dispute is to achieve a settlement quickly and cheaply and to get on with your life.

Being a Negotiator is by far the best way of settling a boundary dispute, but it only works if your neighbour is also a Negotiator.

4.    The Bully

The Bully is someone who won't see any point of view other than his own and won't negotiate - he wants his own way and nothing less.

The Bully is quick to tell you what horrors will befall you if you do not concede to his every demand. The Bully will not expect you to stand up to him - experience tells him that most people are afraid of him, and it is other people's fear that encourages him to continue using bullying as a tactic.

There are two ways of dealing with a bully:

  • present him with an unanswerable case that you are in the right: to do this you need a professional opinion (but note that a professional opinion carries no weight in law and that your neighbour is not legally bound by a professional opinion provided by your expert);
  • treat him as if he was a Poker Player, and become a Poker Player yourself - which takes nerve.

5.    The Poker Player

For many people, poker is a difficult card game to understand. Poker is not about holding the strongest hand, but about making the other players think that you hold the strongest hand.

To play poker, one player lays a bet (or stake) that he holds the strongest hand. Each player in turn then has to decide whether to quit, to meet the stake or to raise the stake.

A quitter decides that he has a weak hand and that he will be unable to bluff his opponents that he has a strong hand. He forfeits any stake that he has already placed on that hand and plays no further part in the hand.

A player (who is one of only two remaining players) meets his opponent by matching his opponent's latest stake but demanding that both players show their cards in order to determine who has the stronger hand.

A player who goes on and on raising the stake is a player who has the nerve, or the resources, to continue playing until all his opponents quit.

A poker game usually ends when it becomes clear that none of the other players have sufficient money with which to continue playing against the player who is able to continue raising the stakes.

There are analogies to be made between a boundary dispute and a poker game.

    The owner with the best case as to the position of the boundary is the player with the stronger hand.

    The neighbour who tries to convince him otherwise is the card player who is bluffing.

    The owner who hasn't the stomach, or perhaps the money, to take the dispute further is a quitter.

If you find that your neighbour is a Poker Player then you have little choice but to play along with him.

It is not all bad news though.

You can try to “meet” him and call his bluff.

For example, you could do this at an early stage by saying to him, “I'll make a copy of my title deeds to show to you if you will show me a copy of your title deeds.”

If that doesn't resolve the issue then you can try again at a later stage:

“Now that we have both received our respective surveyor's reports it is time that we exchanged those reports.”

Or again, you can say, “Let our respective surveyors meet and agree between themselves a solution that will be binding upon us.”

If you have a strong case and know that your neighbour's case is weak then you have to summon the nerve to make your neighbour think that you can go on and on raising the stake. Your hope will be that your neighbour will either quit or meet you. But raising the stakes is a dangerous game that could end up in an expensive court case.


Having read this description of behaviour types, you will hopefully conclude that by far the most sensible behaviour to adopt is that of The Negotiator, and that it is necessary to persuade your neighbour to be a Negotiator too. That way, there is a chance that you both may win, and you will certainly reduce the cost, the time and the distress that would otherwise attend your boundary dispute.


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Boundary Disputes and Harassment

Given that, in a January 2015 paper entitled Boundary Disputes, a scoping study, the Ministry of Justice has described boundary disputes as being "unduly bitter, expensive and time-consuming", it should come as no surprise that some of that bitterness is perceived as being harassment by the other party.

If you believe that your neighbour is harassing you, or if you have been accused by your neighbour of harassing them, then you would be well advised to read the article on Boundary Disputes and Harassment written by Nicholas Isaac, a barrister at Tanfield Chambers. Its target audience is other lawyers dealing with claims of harassment associated with boundary disputes, but it is free of legalese, very readable, and contains sound advice.


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What is the real problem?

A boundary dispute may arise when a technical problem is uncovered relating to the position of the boundary:

  • incompatibility of title deeds: yours and your neighbour's tell different stories as to the position of the boundary;
  • inadequacy of title deeds: the boundary descriptions are so poor as to be difficult to understand, or even meaningless;
  • errors in title deeds: his deeds carry a dimension that your neighbour holds as the gospel truth when anyone can see that the dimension must be wrong because it just doesn't fit any physical features past or present;
  • failure to understand general boundaries: your neighbour swears blind that the boundary is where Land Registry says it is.

Very often, such technicalities may be aired in pursuit of a dispute which isn't actually a boundary dispute at all but a dispute in which your neighbour has another agenda, such as:

  • he is trying to regain a few inches that he feels were lost when your predecessor erected the ancient fence that you are now proposing to replace;
  • he is trying to take control of your hedge because, although you would like it to remain in place, he wants to replace it with a fence so as to maximise the space within his garden;
  • he is trying to take control of your hedge because he would like it to remain in place whereas you would prefer to replace it with a fence so as to maximise the space within your garden;
  • his current needs exceed the old specifications to which his house was built;
  • [eg. his drive is not wide enough to allow him to park a car beside his Victorian house - but he doesn't accept that there were no cars in Victorian times, and he also fails to take responsibility for buying a house with insufficient parking for his needs.]
  • [eg. he now wishes to drive wider vehicles than his access way was designed to accommodate];
  • he is trying to overcome the totally inadequate design of his small front garden (an increasing problem in areas of high density modern housing), particularly the contorted access onto his driveway or into his garage, and he needs some of your land to be able to get his car in and out without damaging it;
  • he lacks the land to satisfy his development plans [his land simply won't accommodate the minimum sized garage or extension between the side of his house and the boundary];
  • avarice: he has tried to grab some land whilst he thinks no-one is looking, either by occupying some apparently waste land, or by erecting or moving a fence onto his neighbour's land whilst it is unoccupied;
  • avarice after the event: he has spotted that the title plan puts the boundary in a different place from where his fence is, ie. he thinks he is entitled to more land than he actually purchased;
  • he is trying to avoid responsibility for maintaining the retaining wall that supports your land;
  • he is trying to get you to pay for necessary repairs to a retaining wall (that you think he owns) that supports his land;
  • he is a NIMBY (not in my back yard) who has been unsuccessful in objecting to your planning application and is now trying a boundary dispute as a means of thwarting your plans;
  • he is treating you as the new kid on the block and is subjecting you to painful initiation rites before being accepted into the community;
  • he is sticking to his principles, even though it would be better for all parties if he were to enter into a negotiated settlement (removal of antagonism, reduced expense, quicker resolution);
  • he is suffering from a terminal breakdown in neighbourly relationships: relations between you and your neighbour are at such a low ebb that he will do anything to annoy you, even to the extreme of tying you into a boundary dispute to prevent you from selling up and moving when it would clearly be in his best interest to do all that he can to facilitate your move.

Once you have ascertained what it is that drives your neighbour's thinking you are in a better position to start negotiating with him, or to decide what other course of action to take if negotiation is not a viable action.


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