Big disputes grow from little things

CALM: Community Justice Centres director Katrina Spyrides said it was often the way neighbours speak to each other that escalates disputes.
CALM: Community Justice Centres director Katrina Spyrides said it was often the way neighbours speak to each other that escalates disputes.

HUNTER residents are increasingly seeking professional help to solve spats over fences, trees and un-neighbourly behaviour.

Community Justice Centres data obtained by Fairfax Media shows the number of Hunter people going to mediation over neighbourhood disputes is on the rise.

Barking dogs, trees and fences get under many a neighbours’ skin.

But the ugliest cross-fence disputes in the Hunter are sparked by “lifestyle and environmental issues” including loud parties, renovations and noisy air conditioners.

Community Justice Centres receive thousands of calls each year from Hunter residents seeking advice about neighbourhood disputes.

Higher density housing is being blamed for the rising problem. 

Experts say most complaints are settled through a neighbourly chat, but others end up in mediation and a handful take costly legal action.

Community Justice Centres director Katrina Spyrides said in many cases disputes had a habit of festering well beyond their original trigger.

“The initial reason which caused the problem is not necessarily what escalates it into a dispute,” she said. 

“Often it is the way people communicate and behave towards each other which makes the situation worse.”

In the two years to June 2016, there were 249 cases in the Hunter requiring mediation.

Of these, 76 per cent, or 189 cases, were resolved.

About 20 per cent, or 52 cases, were sparked by lifestyle and environmental issues, 12 per cent, or 30 cases, related to fences and eight per cent, or 20 cases, were about trees and plants.

Invasion of privacy ranked sixth on the list of Hunter complaints in 2014-15, but climbed to fourth in 2015-16.

“In major cities like Newcastle, many people live in close proximity to their neighbours,” Ms Spyrides said.

“Privacy issues can become a problem when renovations are carried out that enable one neighbour to see directly into the other’s backyard or lounge room.”

Feuding neighbours, family members and workplace colleagues commonly make the mistake of focusing on each other, rather than tackling the common problem which they both want to resolve.

Community Justice Centres director Katrina Spyrides

In March, feuding New Lambton neighbours ended up in the Land and Environment Court over a row of eleven Leyland Cypress trees.

On one side of the fence was Neville and Alison Dann, who refused to prune the established trees on their property.

One the other side was Stephen De Lyall and Susan Thomson who claimed the trees blocked sunlight and an “iconic view across the entire district and in particular to the northeast of the ocean and Stockton”.

The Danns said the trees, planted along their rear boundary, were “well-established” when their neighbours built in 2010.

At loggerheads, Mr De Lyall and Ms Thomson took the matter to court requesting that the trees be pruned every two years to a height of four metres. 

The case was dismissed in April and the trees remain.

Ms Spyrides said mediation saved a lot of disputes getting to court.

“Mediations are a free, convenient and less stressful alternative to taking costly legal action to resolve a dispute,” she said. 

Police, solicitors and council staff often steer clear of neighbourhood disputes and routinely advise combatants to go to Community Justice Centres for advice.

Police only become involved when an offence has been committed because neighbourhood disputes are civil matters.

According to the data, there has also been a jump in the number of Hunter residents seeking mediation for workplace-related disputes.

There were an additional 20 work-place disputes mediated in 2015-16 compared to the previous financial year, a jump of 15 per cent.

Family disputes ending in mediation increased 22 per cent in 2015-16, or an additional 39 cases.

Disputes included separating couples trying to negotiate parenting arrangements and property settlements.

Contact Community Justice Centres on 1800 990 777.