PROLONGED exposure to domestic noise can make people desperate. Seven months of relentless disco music drove a south London market trader to shoot his neighbour in the stomach, and months of nightly misery from a car alarm provoked an east London resident to vent his feelings on the offending vehicle with a metal pipe.

Most people are not driven to such extremes, but awareness of the harmful effects of noise pollution is growing. Initiatives to resolve noise disputes quickly are mushrooming around the country and there may be one in your area. The Right to Peace and Quiet Campaign, which holds information on help available, is a useful first stop.

Some local authorities are setting up 'noise patrols' to take action on noise complaints. The most ambitious, a seven-day-a- week, 24-hour noise control team, launched by Westminster council in September, aims to respond to any noise complaint in the London borough within an hour.

Or there may be a 'neighbourhood mediation scheme' that could help bring the neighbour round to your point of view. These schemes involve local volunteers interviewing the aggrieved person, taking their complaint to the other party, and - if appropriate - bringing the two sides together. Marian Liebmann, director of Mediation UK, says: 'Domestic noise is the top issue in every area and when people are prepared to meet, a solution is usually found.'

Thirty mediation schemes have been set up in the past five years in, among other places, six inner London boroughs, Coventry, Leeds, Bristol, Reading, Plymouth and Milton Keynes.

If these approaches fail or are not yet established in your locality, various legal remedies are available. The police, however, will not respond to noise complaints unless criminal acts are involved or the noise is made in the street.

You may complain to the environmental health department of your local council, which has a legal duty to prevent noise pollution. But there is only a limited obligation to follow up domestic noise complaints and the action taken varies greatly from area to area. Some departments do not follow up complaints at all.

Anyone subject to severe noise nuisance is likely to find the procedures unbearably slow. An environmental health officer has first to monitor the noise over a period and decide that it is a nuisance. In many inner-city areas investigation of a complaint does not begin for a month or more, while in some areas officers are not available out of working hours.

If a nuisance is established, an 'abatement notice' must be served on the person responsible, and only when this has been broken can they be prosecuted. Robert Davis, chair of the environment sub-committee at Westminster council, says: 'It takes up to six months before it gets to court and in the meantime we have no power to do anything when noise- makers ignore the notice.'

There are two ways to cut across this red tape: through statutory nuisance proceedings at a magistrates' court or civil proceedings in nuisance at a county court. Both routes mean you may be liable for some costs if you lose. However, if you have been subject to continuous, unreasonable noise from a neighbour and can show as much, there is every likelihood that you will win. In many cases, mere service of a summons will be enough to stop the noise.

The crucial prerequisite is good evidence. You should keep a diary showing that the noise has occurred repeatedly over a period and has deprived you of normal enjoyment of your home. You must also show that you have appealed to your neighbour directly or through other channels before going to court and have given them formal advance notice of legal action.

You can prepare and conduct both types of case yourself, keeping your costs to a minimum. Going to magistrates' court costs nothing if you represent yourself. It is also straightforward; once you have satisfied the court that you have a case - ask them whether to apply in writing or in person - they will issue a summons and you simply have to present your evidence in court.

A pounds 5 fixed-fee half-hour interview offered by many solicitors will be enough to brief you on the pros and cons of each route; how to prepare an application and whether you are eligible for legal aid. Legal advice can be included in your costs.

Mediation UK, 82a Gloucester Road, Bristol, BS7 8BN (0272 241234). Right to Peace and Quiet Campaign, 081-312 9997.

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