A little therapy in the appliance of science: Surveyors have landed themselves a counselling role, says John Wright

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The Independent Online
PROFESSIONAL land surveyors like to think of themselves as scientists and do not relish the public's image of them as people in orange reflector waistcoats holding up the traffic. In the palmy days before satellites, geodesists (as they were known) determined the shape and size of the earth. Some were Fellows of the Royal Society. Now they have found a new scientific role - as psychologists.

Overseas (especially in the former colonies), land surveyors determine property boundaries by precise measurements between special ground marks at corners. In Britain, we have a sloppy but effective system based on general boundaries which use physical features, such as a hedge, fence, ditch or wall, as the perimeter.

However, the important question of who owns and has the responsibility for maintaining the boundary is often not clear in the title deeds of a property. These were once memorably described by a judge as 'difficult to read, impossible to understand, and disgusting to touch'. Uncertainty can often arise; if the neighbours involved are cantankerous enough, there may be rich pickings for lawyers and even a little left over for land surveyors.

Sensible neighbours settle disputes over a drink - usually by regarding the boundary feature as a 'party' one and sharing the cost of repair, or the labour of trimming to an agreed height. Often the best advice for clients contemplating legal action is, 'Don't'.

Land surveyors in the UK have realised that psychology plays a larger part in handling such disputes than scientific measurement - often because there is nothing precise on which to base the arguments.

One exception is with buildings. These have been plotted to within a foot or two on Ordnance Survey large-scale plans (at 25, or in towns 50, inches to the mile). Virtually all title and Land Registry plans use these and they can be invaluable reference points, even if extensions have subsequently been added.

In the imprecise and sometimes highly emotional atmosphere of a boundary dispute, an understanding of psychology by a professional can play an important part. At two recent conferences on boundaries organised by surveyors and solicitors, this point was well made by David Powell, a Chartered Land Surveyor with many years' experience of settling disputes.

He pointed out the value of finding out what was really at the bottom of the dispute. Often, this does not concern boundaries at all but some nuisance such as a noxious bonfire, loud music or a barking dog. It is only when so provoked that aggrieved neighbours think they have spotted some encroachment on their land. Some people are ready to spend thousands fighting their case.

Mr Powell advises surveyors to be wary of being too sympathetic, in case their final advice is that the client has no case. They should make fees clear early on, and take a second person rather than a tape recorder (the latter puts people off), so that the discussion can later be studied. They should provide a telephone helpline and try to prevent the dispute escalating by giving clients a task, such as recording future activity by the offending neighbour. They should inspect the boundary without the client (and hear the neighbours' views if they appear while doing this). The most useful piece of equipment is usually a tape measure.

So, what is our advice to those having boundary trouble? Do not resort to the law; if you need expert assistance, remember that surveyors are a lot cheaper than solicitors. Be careful whom you select, find out how much it will cost and beware those who seem besotted with precise measurement. Employ a good listener and pay attention to what he or she has to say.

John Wright is a chartered land surveyor.