Using legal action to resolve disputes between neighbours is expensive and time-consuming, it produces a winner and a loser. The loser may never feel the issue has been resolved. They have simply been ordered to stop doing whatever it was they were doing, and may still not understand why.
Disputes can occur through misunderstandings and are often escalated by other unrelated concerns, such as uninformed advice, misinformation, gossip and rumour, and by letting the issue go on for weeks, months or years.
Legal action might be appropriate when the perpetrator is breaching a regulation or acting illegally. However, there are many issues that can be resolved through other processes, most of which are based simply on talking through the issues in an informed and ordered way.
These processes include:
- Researching accurate information
- Mutual resolution
- Asking for third party assistance to intervene
- Setting up an independent mediator to help resolve the matter
Researching and finding accurate information
By seeking accurate information, you might find your neighbour is acting in a completely appropriate and legal way. This may change your attitude and will at least put you in a position of increased understanding. If it appears that they are breaching regulations or acting illegally, you can offer them information and try to develop an ongoing relationship with the person on the basis of help and trust, rather than complaint and accusation.
Mutual resolution between parties
Mutual resolution is often the simplest, quickest and best way for disputes to be resolved. Simply talking to your neighbour and raising the fact that their actions are having an impact on you may lead to a solution. They may not even know of the impact, and may be happy to change their activities or the way they do things.
You may also be able to work together to develop a range of other solutions, such as planting trees along your boundary to provide a visual barrier and block off unsightly views.
Third party assistance to intervene
If you know that the other party is acting illegally you might ask for an advisory officer from the local council or government agency to inspect their operation and provide better management advice or make a determination.
Regulatory officers have a responsibility to intervene and request people to stop practising illegal activities. If people continue with the illegal activity, the officer can order the activity to cease, impose fines and initiate court action if necessary.
Mediation can be useful when:
- An impasse situation has developed.
- There has been a breakdown in communication between the parties.
- The matter in dispute is likely to escalate to litigation.
- There are enforcement or evidence problems which may reduce the effectiveness of the court process making a determination.
- The other person is acting legally, but the impact is still annoying.
Mediation is very effective if used early and can result in immediate solutions and goodwill being built up between neighbours..
Through mediation all the parties meet together, including the affected parties and the person causing the impact. A trained, independent mediator keeps the discussion under control and everyone works together to develop mutually agreeable and workable solutions. This way, the solutions are long-lasting, and may help develop cooperative relationships between the affected parties.
The Dispute Settlement Centre of Victoria
The Dispute Settlement Centre of Victoria can help rural residents and their neighbours resolve disputes over the effects of farming, land use planning and other rural land management activities.
Mediation through the Centre is free and confidential, it aims to provide lasting solutions and is a good alternative to going to court.
The Centre provides experienced rural mediators who can help people find agreement on workable solutions. The discussions are confidential, so what is said in a mediation cannot be raised in court if the matter ultimately ends up there.
Dispute Assessment Officers will also give you free advice and information about how you might resolve the matter yourself. If you want to use the mediation service, they will contact the other party. If everyone agrees to participate, they will organise the mediation in your own community.
Most mediations last for about three hours, and issues are often easily resolved. Some might be more complex, and may require several sessions over a number of weeks. While people can agree to mediate at any time, the earlier it happens the better. The less entrenched everyone is in their own position, the more effective the process can be.
Examples of alternative dispute resolution
Land use planning
A rural landowner was concerned about the odours coming from a new egg production industry recently established on nearby land. She also thought the shed was ugly and intruded on her views.
She rang the local council and the planning officer informed her the industry was a legitimate activity. She then rang the Environment Protection Authority, which investigated the complaint and found that the odours were not in breach of regulations. She finally rang the local Landcare group. The Landcare group agreed to approach the owners of the operation to discuss the matter.
Five years later, a small woodlot has been established jointly on both properties. It provides a visual barrier, wind break and buffer strip, and it also links into the regional wildlife corridor network of the Landcare group.
Livestock on roads
Dairy farmers and other rural residents were at odds over the movement of dairy cows along a public road. A mediator was engaged from the Dispute Settlement Centre of Victoria to help develop better understanding by both parties over the movement of the cattle. The local council was not required to intervene in the issue.
Agreement was reached between non-organic and organic vegetable growers in relation to a compensation claim after spray drift affected a proportion of the organic growers' crops. Threatened court proceedings were withdrawn.
Mediators helped negotiate the proposed location of a new dairy shed that had been a matter of dispute between neighbours. The mediation occurred before council planning approval was sought, and avoided a costly and time-consuming appeals procedure.
What you can do if you have a dispute
- Get informed—check whether activities are legitimate or in breach of a law or regulation.
- Talk with your neighbour to see whether something different or mutually beneficial can be done.
- Call the Dispute Settlement Centre of Victoria about how a mediation session may help.
- Write down the history of the problem for your own records.