When hell is next door

Edmund Tirbutt on how to cover your costs in rows with the neighbours
Summer can bring out the worst in people. The more time spent in the garden the more likely people are to find fault with their neighbours - and not just from smoky barbecues, noisy pets and raucous parties.

The area is riddled with complex minor laws that define your rights. If, for example, you are irritated by an overhanging tree, legally you have the right to trim back branches crossing your boundary line - as long as you don't damage the tree itself - but you must return any trimmings.

A bonfire can create a legal nuisance by being smoky or smelly and, if it becomes dangerous, a neighbour has the right to come on to your property to control it. In some cases bonfires are even prohibited by clauses in the title deeds of properties or local bye-laws.

By contrast, if you are not the legal owner of a boundary fence you have no right to use it without permission. Entry on to your neighbour's land in an attempt to repair it could even amount to trespassing.

Not all neighbourly disputes are resolved amicably, and an increasing number are ending up in court. One way of safeguarding against the cost of such litigation is to take out a legal expenses add-on to your household contents insurance.

Typically available for pounds 10 to pounds 20 a year, this will pay your legal costs for the majority of disputes, as long as the insurer feels you have a good chance of winning the case. It will not, however, cover you for cases the insurer thinks you will lose or for disputes that were in existence before you took out cover. Having this insurance can take much of the worry out of any case by handling the paperwork and appointing a solicitor.

Many insurers now offer customers free legal helplines. These are staffed by qualified lawyers, are available 24 hours a day, and are normally av ailable to anyone with legal expenses insurance, and in some cases to other policyholders. Helpline lawyers can't pursue a case for you but they can clarify your position and recommend alternatives.

If, for example, a vehicle is consistently blocking access to your driveway, the helpline may give you legal chapter and verse on the powers of the police or local authority to remove it under the 1984 Road Traffic Regulations Act. Similarly if you have noisy neighbours, you might be advised to ask your council to measure the noise level. Since last month, under the 1996 Noise Act, local authorities have greater powers to curb excessive night-time noise.

Some firms of solicitors offer a free initial meeting to provide similar advice. Nevertheless, helplines appeal on grounds of convenience, and some people may prefer to talk over the phone than in the formal atmosphere of a solicitor's office.

Litigation is less likely to be necessary when disputes between neighbours involve damage to property - rather than mere nuisance - because compensation may be available via insurance.

Buildings insurance policies normally cover damage to policyholders' driveways, boundary fences, windows and outbuildings, such as garages, greenhouses and sheds. Contents policies also normally include "public liability" cover of up to pounds lm against causing damage to other people's property through negligence. Whether or not the offending party is found to be negligent will depend on whether they are thought to have taken reasonable precautions against an incident occurring. For example, a homeowner who finds his window broken as a result of a cricket ball being hit by a child from the next door garden is likely to have to make a claim on his own buildings policy. The child, or his parents, are unlikely to be considered negligent unless such an incident had happened many times before.

If someone has his garage burnt down as a result of a neighbour holding a barbecue, it is more than likely that the neighbour would be considered negligent. In which case the claim is likely to be paid under the neighbour's policy. The key is to ensure you have both buildings and contents insurance. If you do you should be covered whether you are the instigator of, or sufferer from, any damage.

Any arguing about which neighbour's policy a claim should be made on will normally be confined to the insurers. The disadvantage of having a claim made against your policy rather than that of your neighbour's is that you will lose your no-claims bonus. The one area where some policyholders might find they are not covered is with furniture and machinery left in the garden or stored in outbuildings. These are covered under some contents policies but not all.