A legal boundary may be a visibly marked or invisible line which separates one piece of land from another. Most boundaries were created a long time ago, when the original owner of a larger portion of the land divided it into smaller parcels. It was the responsibility of this person to identify these boundaries, however, over time, these documents have been mislaid or found to have inaccuracies. For example, the architect may have drawn up plans for a boundary to be in a particular place but when construction began the fences may not have been placed in the exact position identified in the architect’s drawings.
The position has not been assisted by the fact that the vast majority of property in England & Wales is now registered land. This means that details of ownership, covenants, mortgages and so forth are all recorded at HM Land Registry. Plans associated with titles indicating who owns which parcel of land are drawn to a small scale and are often not accurate as to exact boundary lines.
This has meant that boundary disputes between neighbours have become common, particularly in residential properties where one party wishes to cut down a hedge, plant a tree, move a fence or wants to determine who has responsibility for repairing a fence. Boundary disputes are also common on commercial and agricultural land. Therefore it has become necessary to establish who exactly owns a disputed piece of land. In order to resolve this problem the parties will need to exam both current and historical legal documents, the most important of which is likely to be the earliest available conveyance, plan or transfer deed.
There are some presumptions that exist with boundary disputes, such as the intention of the person who divided the land and where the walls of a property are built, but these are not certain and presumptions can always be rebutted.
If the land is not registered with the Land Registry, then the first thing anyone involved in a dispute should do is to check the deeds to the property, including any old deeds or plans as they will highlight boundaries and give dimensions. Such deeds and plans will normally be in the possession of the owner of the land or their neighbour. If the neighbouring land is registered then the Land Registry may also have copies of these.
If the land is registered with the Land Registry, then first point of call for determining a boundary is to check the Title Register and The Title Plan which are available from the Land Registry. The Title Plan will highlight the inside boundary of the land with red edging. Reference should also be made to any old deeds or plans which will be in the possession of the owner of the land, their neighbour or the Land Registry as these are likely to contain dimensions. All of these documents need to be checked because the Title Plan on its own does not show the exact location of a boundary, but rather a general boundary, which has been interpreted by the Land Registry.
Resolving Boundary Disputes
It is very difficult to determine the exact location of a piece of land’s boundary, particularly if you are looking for a solution that goes down to the last millimetre. This is because boundaries can change over time, either by agreement, by accident (where a fence has been taken down and not replaced in the exact same location) or in some cases without permission (adverse possession). Determining the location of a boundary with that much accuracy will require professional help in the form of a surveyor and maybe even specialist solicitors.
Settling boundary disputes can be a long, complicated and an expensive procedure, especially if you take into account that the cost of resolving a dispute over a very small piece of land may cost more than the value of the land itself. It is recommended that the parties to a boundary dispute try and resolve the matter informally, jointly appoint a surveyor or enter into mediation.
In any event, it is always wise to begin by contacting the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), who are the professional body for qualifications and standards in land, property and construction. John says that “the RICS have a dedicated boundary dispute team and they will be able to put you in touch with a chartered surveyor if required. These disputes are so expensive and out of proportion to the real issues at stake that any way of seeking to resolve quickly and definitively is strongly recommended”.