Article by John Bottoms, published in City Life in March 2010

John Bottoms profile There can be absolutely nothing worse for the people concerned than a dispute with your next door neighbour. The popular expression that “every man’s home is his castle” probably best sums up our attitude to our little plot of dirt.

Because of this we often overreact to what we perceive as being threats or interference with our special place. While having good neighbours is a blessing, having bad ones can lead to big trouble.

Paul Kelly once wrote “from little things big things grow”, which is so true when it comes to a neighbour’s dispute.

Many years ago I acted for a delightful German chef who was in a dispute with the little old lady who lived next door. Things had gone from cutting off branches of the trees that grew over each other’s boundaries and throwing them onto the other side to the installation of broken glass and barbed wire along their mutual fence with the aim of discouraging my client’s cat from trespassing into the old lady’s yard, which was causing her dog to bark (usually in the middle of the night). The cat, rather predictably, had no idea what the fuss was all about and simply picked its way around the artificial barriers and continued to trespass. The dog continued to bark, allegedly at the cat.

I only got involved when a peace and good behaviour application was taken out by the old lady against the chef because he had been foolish enough to spot her in her back yard and to loudly argue with her over the backyard fence – his supposedly threatening overtones scared her and off to court they went. What the magistrate was supposed to make of this dispute, I have no idea, as in many ways it was intractable. Both parties had formed very fixed views of each other and while individually both were polite, reasonable, law abiding people, when faced one with the other all of that went out the window.

Both sides were looking down the barrel of legal costs between $3,000 and $5,000 and were equally anxious that the other side should be punished by having to pay their costs.

What to do? They could not both win and I strongly suspected the magistrate would eventually find the formula where both of them would lose. I then hit on the idea of mediation. Community mediations are run through the Dispute Resolution Centre (formally the Community Justice Program) by the Department of Justice and Attorney General, and are really an excellent way of resolving disputes in which no one is really in the right or the wrong.

The solicitor on the other side was just as keen as I was to try and find a resolution so we happily handed over our two unhappy campers to the Dispute Resolution Centre (toll free 1800 017 288).

Amazingly enough, after they met in neutral surroundings and discovered that the other party was not an ogre, peace broke out and all eventually became well.

The use of the law is too blunt an instrument to invoke unless very real physical violence is involved.