Neighbour problems

Decades ago, when I worked for the Scottish Citizens’ Advice Bureaux, I wrote a booklet on Neighbour Problems. Not only is this still a frequent complaint brought to Citizens Advice but I can report that neighbour disputes are alive and well in France too.

Sometimes they are resolved peacefully. Years ago Chris and I watched as one neighbour, a builder, having blocked his own access with piles of rubble, took short cuts over his neighbour’s land. This neighbour put up a ribbon along the boundary – the builder got out of his truck, cut it, and proceeded as usual. So then the neighbour planted a row of trees. That defeated the builder, who was a man of the soil and would not damage trees, and so unblocked his own entrance.

I once watched another neighbour, told that her swimming pool was partly on another’s plot of land, discreetly shifting boulders so that border was more clearly further away from the pool.

Not so nice was the experience of a young woman I knew in Montpellier. When she bought her house, the neighbour claimed she had no right to use her first floor terrace (which happened to look over the neighbour’s garden). Things got very nasty, ending up in court. Unfortunately the neighbour was a local judge and nobody was willing to represent my friend, who ended up hiring a lawyer from Paris – but won. My friend was black and there is no doubt that the motivation here was racist.

I would say that most problems I have observed here have to do with property rights rather than, say, noise. I find it fascinating how well versed people are on rights (more so than obligations) and how keen to know to the nearest square metre where are the boundaries of their property and what rights others have to pass through.

I know of a hamlet which seems to be particularly susceptible to tensions between neighbours, with a variety of disputes over access or use of land. The latest has become very nasty and disturbing. It involves a couple with a house right in the heart of the hamlet.

Recently the house next door was sold to a couple of Parisians. On arrival in the village, they started almost immediately to hassle my friends, claiming that their bathroom, and I think other bits of the house, did not belong to them. It is true that my friends’ bathroom is built on top of part of the neighbours’ house. But old Cévenol villages are like that. Then they denied my friends right of access to their house, barricading the entrance and forcing them to take a longer, more precipitous route.

My friends consulted lawyers and a property surveyor (géomètre expert). It appears that the original division of the houses years and years ago is problematic, but on the advice of their lawyer, they issued an injunction requiring the neighbours to remove the blocked access to their house.

Things have now got very nasty. The neighbours have countered with a formal notice to quit ‘their’ property. The rest of the village has apparently provided statements recording that in their memories, my friends’ house has been as it is now, including the access, for decades, going back to the fifties at least. But presumably a lot will depend on various expert statements and the view of the judge.

My poor friends – the wife is not in good health and they are not loaded financially – face a very scary future. French litigation can be long and costly and they are unfortunately not insured for legal costs.

Remind me to check next week that my house insurance includes assurance de protection juridique!

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