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Property disputes

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Broadly speaking, property disputes take one of two forms. First, there are those concerning ownership of property between two or more people. Second, are the ones concerning third-party rights between neighbours. The latter are where both parties often become entrenched, with costs and tensions rising significantly in a very short space of time. If you get involved in a neighbour dispute it is vitally important that every reasonable attempt is made to negotiate or mediate a settlement, to avoid escalating costs. Remember, while you are involved in a dispute this limits your ability to sell your property, because it will have to be disclosed to a potential buyer. 

Boundary disputes 

“Who owns the boundary?” and “Where is the boundary?” are two frequently asked questions. Sometimes they can be answered by carefully going through ancient deeds and documents. But in many cases, either the deeds have been lost or they do not offer much assistance, which means you may need to get a surveyor to provide an opinion on where the boundary lies. 

If an agreement still cannot be reached, then you can take your dispute to the county court or to the property chamber first-tier tribunal. In both cases, the costs will be significant and the losing party will end up paying a contribution towards the winner’s costs. The overall financial implication may well exceed the value of the part of the property in dispute. 

TOLATA claims 

TOLATA is short for Trusts of Land and Appointment of Trustees Act 1996. This legislation is often used when a relationship between cohabiting partners breaks down and where a property in which the parties lived is in the name of one person only. 

For example, Jack and Jill develop a relationship and decide to live together. They both own houses but it is agreed that Jill will sell her house and move in with Jack. Jill sells her house and with the proceeds of sale pays off Jack’s mortgage. However, nothing is ever put into writing and Jack’s property remains in his sole name. The relationship later breaks down and Jack tells Jill to leave and refuses to give her money back. 

There is no agreement in writing but, by using TOLATA, Jill will be able to persuade a court that, irrespective of no written agreement and the fact that the property remains in Jack’s name, she has still acquired a beneficial interest in Jack’s property. The court will declare that Jill’s interest is the extent of her financial contribution and order that the property is sold, or that Jack pays her a sum of money representing her interest. 

Although this act helps in resolving cohabitation disputes, a situation like Jill’s could easily be avoided (and certainty provided) by Jack and Jill entering into a form of written agreement known as a Declaration of Trust. 


These are rights a person (often a neighbour) has over somebody else’s land. Two typical examples are rights of way, or a right to drainage. They can be created by express agreement or acquired over a period of time. In some circumstances, the law can imply an easement in somebody’s favour.  

Adverse possession 

Most land is acquired by sale and purchase, or by gift or inheritance. However, people can also acquire land, or an interest in land, by Adverse Possession or Squatters Rights. To obtain land, or an interest in land, in this way you must show that you have used it for a specified period and in a particular manner. You must show you have used or occupied the land without right or permission, in an open manner, and treated it as your own. If, after the specified period of time (which depends upon the type of right that you are claiming), no steps are taken by the owner of the land to evict you, then you can apply to the land registry to have your interest registered. 

Often an application for adverse possession will be opposed. If so, the case will need to be proven by providing statements in the first instance. These will be filed with the tribunal, which will list the application for a formal hearing, where evidence will be heard and cross examined. The applicant must prove that, on the balance of probabilities, he or she has occupied the land for the requisite period of time and in the requisite manner. 

Building disputes 

People can save for many years to have the dream extension built on the back of the house. Or perhaps they remortgage or take out expensive loans. Thankfully, for the most part they are happy – even delighted – with the end result, and it is seen as a worthwhile investment. However, you may however be in the unfortunate minority. The work may not be up to standard or never completed, or the builders may damage your property. 

Nothing we can do will take away the pain and misery of experiencing substandard building work. Sadly, the reality is that, if you find yourself in this position, the builder goes bankrupt or just disappears, making legal proceedings a waste of time. 

But, you can limit the damage that a poor builder can cause: 

  • Find out the builder’s trading style and establish exactly who you are dealing with. Are you dealing with a limited company or is the builder an individual or a partnership? Remember, if you are dealing with the former that is an entirely different legal entity from an individual. If it’s a limited company, it may have no assets to pursue. At least an individual may have a house against which you can enforce a judgment
  • Either way, establish what insurance cover the builder has. He or she should, at the very least, have public liability insurance. Ask to see aa copy of the insurance cover
  • Ensure that all the specified work and price is confirmed in writing and, if you are paying by stages, be clear exactly how much is due and when     

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