When bothersome building work can lead to harassment

1 July 2012

Property owners who carry out building works could find themselves liable not just for nuisance, but also for harassing their neighbours if their behaviour amounts to deliberate and persistent tormenting. That's the outcome of the latest Court of Appeal case which has ruled that house owners who torment their neighbours could find themselves in court for harassment. Samantha Jones and Rachel Lovegrove moved into their new home in Nottingham in 2002 and within a matter of weeks their next door neighbours, Liam and Lesley Ruth, started major works to enlarge their house, both on the ground floor and by adding a third storey. The work should have been completed within a year, but instead it dragged on for five years leaving Jones and Lovegrove to suffer from the resulting noise, dust, pollution and vibration. They also experienced trespass by the Ruths, who erected scaffolding in their garden without permission, made holes in the gable end wall of their property to insert purlins, and caused substantial damage with increased structural loads caused by the new third storey. Not surprisingly, Jones and Lovegrove won their claim for nuisance and trespass, winning a substantial sum in damages. But more unusually, Samantha Jones also claimed damages for personal injury under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, which she claimed had been caused by Mr Ruth and his family. Severe back pain brought on by anxiety and depression meant she had been unable to work since April 2005 and was receiving physiotherapy and counselling. She claimed that the anxiety was caused by the Ruth's aggressive and intimidatory behaviour, their refusal to provide information about the progress of the work and by ignoring repeated requests to reduce the noise and make good the damage they had caused. They had also left abusive notes concerning the same sex relationship of Jones and Lovegrove. At the first trial, the judge agreed the behaviour was harassment but awarded Samantha Jones just £6000 for distress and anxiety, way below the amount she had claimed. He refused further compensation by saying the injuries and loss of earnings were not foreseeable. But the Court of Appeal disagreed, saying that the trial judge had been wrong to apply negligence criteria to the claim. They said that there was no requirement of foreseeability under the Protection from Harassment Act and awarded Ms Jones the full amount she had claimed. Explained Justin Emerson, Property Litigation expert of Chelmsford Solicitors Gepp & Sons. "Although this judgement does not say that building works on their own will amount to harassment, it does give comfort to people who are faced with extreme behaviour by a neighbour. All too often there are stories of difficult and aggressive neighbours who refuse to put matters right. Following this judgement, those neighbours may be found guilty of harassment and they will have to pay the cost, whatever it may be." He added: "It's important to keep neighbours in mind when you're buying a property. Asking the sellers if there have been any previous disputes is one of the standard questions asked during the conveyancing process and if a seller doesn't disclose any dispute, they will be in trouble for misrepresentation. " "And if you get involved with neighbours wanting to use part of your building for their own development, as in this case, then you need to find out what your rights are for any compensation and deal with it at the outset. The Court of Appeal held that the correct damages to compensate for the Ruths tying into the dividing wall was £15,000, being the equivalent price that might have been paid if the households had negotiated a price and agreed what's called an 'easement' on the property before work started." Jones and Lovegrove v Ruth [2011] EWCA Civ 804 Protection from Harassment Act 1997 For additional information please contact Justin Emerson of Gepp & Sons. The above is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.