Disputes With Neighbours: An Access Dispute that Cost £200,000

Thankfully, disputes with neighbours are unusual. In most cases, when someone has a problem or a situation arises with their neighbour, they get together with them and come to an agreeable solution. These situations can be over anything from where the bins are placed when they go out for collection to how to deal with the bush that is now growing over and through the fence into the neighbouring garden.

Most people are reasonable and the majority of straightforward matters are easily handled. You still need to seek legal advice when things are expensive to correct, even when you have a good relationship with your neighbour. Our article on Japanese knotweed highlights how expensive such problems can be to correct.

But what happens when a straightforward and easily resolved matter cannot be sorted out over a cup of tea? This is the story of how a 14-year row between next-door neighbours over access to gas and electricity meters resulted in a stabbing, a conviction and a legal bill of over £200,000 and how it could have been avoided.

The dispute was between pensioners Frank and Carol Dickinson who live at 98 Bexhill Road, Davenport in Greater Manchester and their next-door neighbour Mojgan (Mo) Casillas at Number 96. Both parties own detached houses on an estate built in the late 1980s.

The side wall of Number 96 is built along the boundary line with Number 98. Mo’s gas and electricity meters are set into this wall, so they can be only be read by someone accessing the eight-foot wide drive which belongs to the Dickinsons at Number 98.

Mo, five-months pregnant with her first child, and Leo, her then-husband, moved into Number 96 in 2002. They were warmly welcomed by Frank, a retired businessman and ex-solicitor, and Carol, a former childminder who said she would be happy to help look after their child.

Unfortunately, trouble began just a few weeks after they had moved in. The Dickinsons started to complain about Mo’s visitors stepping on their driveway when they got out of their cars to go to her house. Some of Mo’s visitors would walk two feet across the Dickinsons’ drive rather than taking the correct path around the front lawn.

Mo apologised and explained that not everyone was aware of the land boundaries. Then, ten days after Mo gave birth in November 2002, the midwife came to visit and she walked across the Dickinsons’ drive to get to Number 96. Carol was furious and she immediately went around to Mo’s to complain. Her behaviour was such that the midwife told Mo to report her to the police, which she did, but this just further aggravated the situation.

Things escalated further in 2003 when the Dickinsons erected a locked gate between the two houses preventing Mo from accessing their drive and her meters. The Dickinsons considered that Mo had no right to go on to their land to either read her meters or to inspect her wall to see if any repairs were needed.

The erection of the gate was to be just the start of the on-going row. Over the years, there were many other incidents; in one year alone Mo complained to the police more than 200 times about Carol. This unhappy situation led Mo to take the decision to move and she put their house on the market in 2006.

Unfortunately, the wind blew the “For Sale” sign around so that part of it hung over the Dickinsons’ property. Carol attempted to cut down the “For Sale” sign with a carving knife. An elderly neighbour tried to stop her doing so and she stabbed him in the arm. Carol was convicted and bound to keep the peace for two years.

Given the disputes and complaints surrounding the property, Mo was unable to sell her property.

In May 2013, Mo decided to bring the access matter to a close and issued proceedings against the Dickinsons in the County Court in Manchester. The Court found in her favour and ruled that the Dickinsons had to either remove the gate or give Mo a key to it and allow her access to read the meters and inspect her wall. The Dickinsons were also ordered to pay her costs.

The Dickinsons appealed the decision. Their appeal was initially refused but later granted on a renewed application following submissions by newly-instructed counsel.

In August 2017, the Court of Appeal upheld the original ruling and dismissed their appeal. Lord Justice David Richards said that Recorder Khan, who had ruled in the County Court, was “highly critical of Mr and Mrs Dickinson, as regards both their conduct before the proceedings were issued and their evidence at the trial” but they could have no complaints about his decision.

He added that the judge was ‘plainly right’ to find that Mrs Casillas had a right to go onto her neighbours’ land to inspect her meter and that any other outcome ‘would be absurd’.

In summing up, he said “Where most neighbours would have found a sensible solution to the problems that arose between them, Mr and Mrs Dickinson took their stand on what they considered to be their strict legal rights. To their great cost, they were wrong about those rights.”

The Dickinsons were ordered to pay Mo’s costs which amounted to well over £200,000. Outside the Court during the case, the Dickinsons’ son, Peter, said: ‘This whole thing has mushroomed into a situation that could result in my parents losing their home’.

Disputes With Neighbours – Our Thoughts

Andy Rudkin, Head of Dispute Resolution at Else Solicitors, commented:

“This is an unfortunate case in which neither side could be said to have won. Mrs Casillas said that the Dickinsons’ behaviour was a ‘huge contributing factor’ in the breakdown of her marriage, which ended in 2014, and had had a significant impact on her mental health. The Dickinsons have been left with a huge legal bill which may result in them losing their home.

Unfortunately, it is not unusual for something that starts out as a small complaint, such as visitors walking across two feet of someone else’s drive, to escalate further. However, much of this could have been avoided. It is clear that the two parties could not come to a mutually agreeable solution between themselves. If one of them had taken legal advice earlier and brought the claim to Court to resolve the right of access issue when the gate was erected in 2003 then both sides would have known where they stood.

This would not have improved the relationship between them, but Mrs Casslias would have been able to sell her home in 2006, as the disputes with neighbours would have been dealt with, and the Dickinsons would not have been left with such a large legal bill.”

Chris Else, Managing Partner added: “Dispute resolution is quite rightly seen as the last resort in dealing with such problems. The question is: when nothing else is progressing the matter further, how long do you leave it before taking legal advice? In this instance, litigation to resolve the right of access issue early on would have avoided many of the later problems. We strongly recommend that if two parties cannot find a mutually agreeable solution between themselves, then they talk to a solicitor.  A solicitor can discuss the range of options open to you and how best to move things forward. Sometimes matters can quickly be resolved with a few letters or through mediation. In other instances, you will need to go to Court. As this case highlights, it is always better to resolve a situation early on rather than allow it to escalate further.

Our team is experienced in helping individuals quickly and efficiently resolve disputes with neighbours.”