Do you know about the hedge and ditch principle? It’s an ancient rule that can be a shaft of sunlight through the fog of a rural boundary dispute.
In a case in 1810, a few years before the Battle of Waterloo, Mr Justice Laurence said: “The rule about ditching is this. No man, making a ditch, can cut into his neighbour’s soil, but usually he cuts it to the very extremity of his own land: he is of course bound to throw the soil which he digs out, upon his own land; and often, if he likes it, he plants a hedge on top of it.”
It seems at first almost a comical idea – the judge cannot have known what any particular farmer did in the past, he was making it up. But the Court of Appeal re-affirmed the principle in 2015 in the case of Parmar v Upton. And, when you think about it, it is an excellent rule – simple and easy to apply, and bringing a bit of certainty to boundary questions in the country.
Having said that, it may only be a starting point. It does not apply if the boundary was fixed after the ditch was dug. It can also be overruled by what the title deeds say. In the Parmar v Upton case, although the rule ultimately proved decisive, this was only after significant time and costs had been spent by the parties.
Often, the problem is not about boundaries – it is about the relationship between individuals. Neighbours fall out, they stop talking to each other, then, when there is an issue, it escalates.
The skill of the solicitor in a boundary dispute can be a subtle one. Court proceedings may sometimes be necessary, but approaching the situation firmly but diplomatically can often achieve a better result for the client.