Winners who end up losers in legal wrangles

Taking a difficult neighbour to court left a retired couple counting the cost
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The Independent Online
Roy Swainston and his wife went to court and won, but they are still counting the financial burden which turns most people who tangle with the English legal system into losers, writes Stephen Ward.

The elderly couple had retired to a bungalow in Westward Ho!, Devon, but their quiet life was shattered three years ago when noisy neighbours moved in.

Mr Swainston began to keep a diary, chronicling the disturbances allegedly caused by 33-year-old Clark Fox and his family, and by the time they reached court, there had been almost 1,000 incidents recorded.

Most concerned noise from Mr Fox's radios, dogs or motorbike, but in one entry in the log Mr Fox had used "very abusive language" to order the removal of his neighbour's bird boxes from his garage wall. "Keep off" was then scrawled on the wall. On another occasion Mr Fox "siphoned the water from the Swainstons' water butt claiming it was a health danger to his two children".

Mr Swainston was driven to phoning the police five times a day, and once Mr Fox was convicted of a breach of the peace after seven officers were needed to restrain him following a complaint about his radio.

Finally the Swainstons decided to take him to court, and went to their solicitor, but they were not poor enough to get legal aid, so they had to dip into their savings. The bills mounted. At the end of an 11-day hearing at Barnstable County Court in April, District Judge John Turner said this was the "most wretched and miserable neighbourhood dispute" he had ever heard, and said it should be possible to "nip in the bud" such disputes.

The Swainstons actually got most of what they wanted from the judgment. The judge decided Mr Fox should only play his radio with the doors closed, should not touch the boundary fence and must not let his drainpipe overflow into his neighbour's garden. He also awarded them pounds 4,000 compensation, but he said they themselves should pay pounds 500 to the Foxes to compensate for the "spying" involved in compiling the list of incidents.

The worst news of all, though, was the costs order. The Foxes were legally aided, so their own costs of pounds 25,000 were paid by the taxpayer. But the judge ruled that the pounds 23,000 costs run up by the Swainstons should be paid one-third themselves, and two-thirds by the Foxes.

The problem was that the legal aid would not help there, so the Swainstons have been left trying to recover the money, and are still waiting. The only good news is that the Foxes have moved away.