A land dispute is a common issue for landowners. We cannot always prevent these disputes, but these issues when they come up can be resolved.
There are many sources of a land disputes, these include inaccuracy of a deed description, or where the neighbours all agree that the legal description is correct, one neighbour has been occupying a portion of the land for long enough to claim ownership of it, under a theory of “adverse possession.” Another possible source of dispute is when multiple, unrecorded deeds convey the same property to different people. Are you encroaching on the neighbours’ land, or are they encroaching on yours? The cause of the dispute, amount of land in question, and available options for resolution vary greatly depending on the facts of the situation. This article will discuss what to do in the event of a land dispute.
Contacting a lawyer
Whenever you find yourself as a disputant over a land, the first step is to seek a lawyer’s professional advice so as to make sure you have a full understanding of the cause and nature of the dispute. Additionally, the lawyer’s advice would keep you informed as to whether you have a valid claim on the land in dispute and what additional information you will need if the issue proceeds to litigation. You may, unfortunately, discover that you have no case, or that you are in fact encroaching on your neighbour’s property just as the neighbour had claimed, in which case litigation will be futile if you cannot reach an agreement with your neighbour. The area and value of land in dispute may be small enough that the issue is best resolved by mutual agreement rather than by rushing into court. The reason for this is not far-fetched, as litigation costs add up quickly, and can easily exceed the value of the land in question. How you proceed greatly depends on your relationship with the neighbour. Keeping things friendly, or at least civil, is often the best approach. If your relationship with your neighbour allows, try to speak with him or her about the issue. Perhaps there is simply a misunderstanding, which can be cleared up between the two of you.
A personal touch
Although consulting with your lawyer is advisable prior to talking with the neighbour, try to leave the lawyer in the background for now – in other words, don’t get the lawyer involved in communications with your neighbour, or take any action to file a lawsuit. A personal visit, phone call, letter, or even an email from you will be better received than a letter from your lawyer, or actions like filing a complaint or placing stakes or ribbons on the land you claim is yours. That is especially true if your neighbour does not yet know that you believe there is a boundary issue. You will figure out shortly after speaking with your neighbour whether lawyers will need to be brought in.
Assuming the law is on your side, and private discussions between you and your neighbour have not been productive, a letter from your attorney to the neighbour explaining the situation and either requesting action or containing a reasonable offer to settle can possibly resolve matters. An offer to settle may include a compromise to divide the property at issue, modify additional boundary lines not at issue, or offer or request a monetary payment to settle the issue. Even if the law is on your side, it may ultimately be cheaper and less stressful to “purchase” the property from your neighbour rather than proceed to trial. However, your actions may also put your neighbour on the defensive. Your neighbour is likely to forward your letter to his or her lawyer. Do not be offended, or interpret this to mean the neighbour is not willing to negotiate or compromise. It may simply mean that the neighbour wants to understand the options fully. After all, you sought out a lawyer first. If the demand letter and other negotiations among your respective lawyers are not getting you the hoped-for results, it may be time to file a complaint in court, most likely to “quiet title.” This means you ask the court to consider all your evidence and arguments (and your neighbour’s evidence and arguments) and decide who legally owns the land at issue.
At this point, your lawyer should already have most of the information needed for the complaint. Nevertheless, because preparing for litigation requires a great deal more research and paperwork (in order to satisfy the court’s requirements for legal briefs, exhibits, and so on) costs will begin to add up quickly. If, during the early stages of the litigation, the case appears ripe for a settlement, a conscientious lawyer will try to minimize the costs of the demands placed on the opposing party. For example, the lawyer might limit requests for documents known as “admissions” and “interrogatories.”
Because most disputes settle short of trial, it often wise to proceed with an eye towards settlement, keeping relationships cordial and costs down, while remaining prepared for trial if it becomes unavoidable. The court may even require you to attempt mediation in order to reach a settlement. It is important to select a mediator who is experienced in real estate matters. The mediator will be able to guide the discussion and negotiation, and provide real-world insight into possible outcomes were the matter to go to trial. If mediation is unsuccessful, settlement might still be possible, but your focus should now shift to trial preparation. Determine how much the land is worth to you, and whether going forward with trial is in your best interests financially and otherwise. In rare circumstances, you can recoup your costs from the other party, but often the best outcome you can hope for is to win your case and obtain clear title to the land while incurring significant expenses. The worst outcome would be to lose the case, and still spend so much money. Sometimes a small strip of land is just not worth fighting over.
Trizon Law Chambers is a commercial law firm that focuses on corporate commercial legal work.
Our scope of services are:
- Legal advise in business legal relations/ Corporate governance advisory services/Contract drafting resolution of commercial disputes or misunderstandings.
- We emphasise aiding clients to avoid taking their disputes to court and we start this from the very contracts that clients draft for their business relationships to have clauses that allow for out-of-court dispute resolution.
- Corporate and Business registration, tax filings, regulatory compliance and negotiations.