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Rights of way over land are a constant source of dispute and, because the law relating to land is complex, such disputes all too frequently end up in avoidable court proceedings.
A recent case heard by Bristol County Court was brought by a man who claimed a right of way over his neighbours' land. This was necessary in order for him to reach another piece of land – over which there was an explicit right of way – so that he could access the highway.
The argument related to two properties in Wincanton, one fronting the street, Number 17 High Street, and a cottage behind it. Neither property has access to the High Street. The two properties were in common ownership until they were split in 1999. In 1982, the owner had sold a parcel of land behind the cottage to the local authority for the creation of a public car park. The local authority granted a right of way benefiting both properties over the land sold in order to provide access to the highway via the car park. The owner and his successors in title were also granted the right to park in the car park for the purpose of loading and unloading only.
The cottage was sold in 1992, at which time the owner of Number 17 retained for himself a vehicular right of way over a yard that was part of the cottage's land so that he could continue to access the right of way over the local authority land. Since that time, both properties have changed hands.
What made the case somewhat unusual was that the document 'reserving' the vendor's right of way over the yard had referred to access to a garage at the rear of Number 17. This had long since been demolished and the current owners of the cottage therefore claimed that as the purpose for which the right of way was created had ceased to exist, the right no longer existed.
The owner of Number 17 became upset when the family living in the cottage put plant pots and various other items in the yard, gradually making it more difficult for him to exercise the right of way.
Over time, the use of the yard became the source of an extremely fractious relationship between the neighbours, leading to the repeated involvement of the local police.
That in turn led to the argument about the nature of the right of way and the proper boundary between the properties, which had run along the edge of the (now demolished) garage. The land in dispute has a width of less than five feet.
Court proceedings lasting four days were required to decide the matter. The decision stressed that when the property was split, the original vendor wished to retain as many rights over the yard as he could for himself. A narrow interpretation of the rights of access over the yard would not, therefore, have acceded to his original intentions.
The decision also relied heavily on both the Ordnance Survey maps of the area and contemporaneous photographs. In addition, the behaviour of the two families over the years was highly significant.
Overall, the judge found that the right of way was established and that the owners of the cottage had 'attempted to take, little by little, more and more of the claimant's rights away from him'.