Me, my neighbour and that tree

B1The house was just perfect – the right neighbourhood, well-established garden, beautiful trees waving in the breeze with just the right amount of shade next to your swimming pool. And as the trees belong to your neighbour, no need for pruning, said the estate agent. You and your family loved the new home.

Autumn arrived. The leaves have changed and started falling, the swimming pool pump required repairs twice due to blockage and your Saturday golf has been replaced with clearing heaps of leaves. To add to that, a thunder storm ripped a branch off, which broke your electric fence and the wall. Problems with trees from adjacent gardens is an old story.

But what can you do about it?

To merely jump over the fence and prune, or worse, cut down the tree to your satisfaction will not only constitute trespassing but also malicious damage to your neighbour’s property. The courts have carefully considered the basis on which you can approach the court, now generally considered as “nuisance”.

Firstly, you will have to prove to the court that the inconvenience caused to you by your neighbour’s tree is more than you just being sensitive. The inconvenience caused must materially interfere with your ordinary physical comfort and your experience.

The standard that the court will use is that of a normal, reasonable person. The test of reasonableness will be applied, taking into account general norms acceptable to a particular society. Actual damage to your property is not a requirement.

The court will, however, also consider the nuisance, even if the tree(s) is actually causing damage, balancing this with your responsibility to tolerate the natural consequence of the ordinary use of the land. In other words, the court will consider the dispute and the decision will involve balancing the competing interests of you and your neighbour.

Should I care about the environment?

The judgement of Judge De Vos in Vogel vs Crewe and another 2003 (4) SA 50 (T) raised a further very important aspect – the environment.

In a world where trees and nature are considered all the more important for our well-being and that of the earth, careful consideration should be taken before a demand for the cutting down of a tree is granted. Judge De Vos noted that trees form an essential part of our human environment, not only giving us aesthetic pleasure but also being functional in providing shade, food and oxygen. And, like many other living things, trees require, in return for the pleasure provided, a certain amount of effort and tolerance.

With our increasing awareness of the importance of protecting our environment, we need to become more tolerant of the inevitable problems caused by the shrinking size of properties and the greater proximity of neighbours, and consequently, the neighbours’ trees.

Solving the problem peacefully

Before you sell your property and move to another neighbourhood altogether, consider a friendly discussion with your neighbour and his pruning company of choice, from YOUR side of the fence.

Explain to your neighbour which branches of which trees are problematic or show him the cause for your concern. And be willing to reach an agreement somewhere in the middle, taking the type of tree, its form of growth and the balance of the tree into consideration. It will not suffice to demand the removal of a large branch unbalancing the tree which will then fall over during the next storm taking down your wall.

If all your efforts, including friendly letters and e-mailed correspondence fall on deaf ears, you are allowed to prune all branches as from the point that it protrudes over the wall into your property. You are not allowed to lean over the wall to cut those branches at the neighbour’s side of the wall. You will also be responsible for removing the branches from your property after you have pruned the tree in this manner.

So relax and have a good, impartial look at that “offending” tree. Must that tree go? or can you tolerate it with a little pruning?

This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied on as legal or other professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your legal adviser for specific and detailed advice. Errors and omissions excepted (E&OE).