Neighbour Law (Script 400)

From Clicklaw Wikibooks

Many of us have had occasional problems with neighbours involving noise, untidy premises, dogs, fences, trees and hedges, second-hand smoke, water damage, or trespass. This script describes the laws that deal with these types of problems. In most cases, you can try talking to the person causing the problem. They may not be aware of the effect they’re having on their neighbours and talking to them may solve the problem. However, if speaking with your neighbour is not possible or has not solved the problem, you have other options, described in this script.

Noise

Many of us have had our peace and quiet disturbed by squealing tires, loud stereos, barking dogs, or noisy equipment. What can you do to stop it? First, try talking to the person causing the noise. They may not realize how irritating it is.

If that doesn’t work, call your city hall and ask if there is a noise bylaw. If there is one, talk to the person who enforces it. For example, in Vancouver, you would call the Environmental Health Officers. Each municipality’s noise bylaw is different, but most are broad. In Vancouver and many other municipalities, the bylaw covers noise from animals including dogs and birds, heavy duty equipment, lawnmowers, loud parties, stereos and many other things. Usually, the municipality’s enforcement officer will try to solve the problem informally. If they can’t, they may prosecute the person in court for violating the bylaw.

If the noise is on a weekend or at night and city hall is closed, you can call the police. If a person is screaming, shouting, swearing or singing to the point they are creating a nuisance for others, they may be causing a common disturbance – an offence under the Criminal Code. In all these cases, call the police and report it. The Criminal Code is available at http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca.

You can also sue the person causing the noise. You could sue for damages for nuisance or negligence, or ask the court to order the person to stop the noise. Note, however, that this can be a lengthy, expensive, and often a stressful process and you are not guaranteed a positive outcome. Further, there may be circumstances where there is a perceived nuisance, but no options available. For example, if a noise or odour is permitted by zoning or custom (e.g. in an industrial or agricultural area), then there may not be an option available for a neighbour. Additionally, a court may determine that the noise/odour isn’t substantial enough to constitute a nuisance.

Untidy premises

Most municipalities have bylaws to control garbage, junk, overgrown yards, or abandoned vehicles. For example, in Vancouver, every property owner must keep their property in neat and tidy condition in keeping with a reasonable standard of maintenance common in the neighbourhood. In these circumstances, it is likewise best to speak with a neighbour where possible, but if this fails or is impossible, your next step is the local government. Explain your situation to the person who enforces bylaws. They may investigate and if your complaint is valid, order the owner to clean up the property. If the owner doesn’t, the municipality can clean it up and at the owner’s expense.

Dogs

The responsibilities of dog ownership are described in 4 places: local bylaws, provincial laws, the Criminal Code, and the common law, as explained below.

1. Local bylaws

Local bylaws cover licensing and may prohibit dogs from being in certain places. You can find a copy of local bylaws at your public library, courthouse library, or local government offices. Many local bylaws are also available on the municipality’s website.

Many local governments have passed bylaws to prohibit dogs running loose. In Vancouver, for example, dogs cannot be on the street or in a public place unless they’re on a leash not more than 8 feet long (2.5 meters) – except in off-leash parks. As well, female dogs must be kept indoors when they’re in heat.

The Vancouver animal control bylaw also requires “aggressive” dogs – those with a known tendency to attack or bite, or dogs that have bitten another domestic animal or person without provocation – to be muzzled or kept indoors or in a pen. The city may seize and impound (for up to 3 weeks) a dog that has bitten someone. A dog found running loose, or unlicensed, will be taken to the Pound and, if it isn’t claimed within three days, it may be put up for sale or destroyed. The owner could also be charged fees for impounding the dog, keeping it at the Pound, and any veterinary services it needs. The owner may be fined for violating the bylaw.

Health bylaws in Vancouver and elsewhere prohibit dogs in restaurants and other places where food is kept or handled. These bylaws don’t apply to private homes nor do they prohibit “seeing-eye” or other types of service dogs from entering restaurants or other public establishments.

Vancouver has a bylaw requiring that you to pick up your dog’s excrement on property that is not your own. Failure to do so can result in a fine of up to $2000. This law does not apply to working “seeing-eye” dogs or service dogs.

Vancouver’s animal control bylaw also regulates the noise of barking or howling dogs. For example, if your neighbours complain that your dog’s barking unreasonably disturbs the peace and quiet of the neighbourhood, you could be fined up to $2,000. Other local governments also regulate dog barking in their noise-control bylaws.

2. Provincial laws

The BC Livestock Act protects farm animals from attacks by dogs. For example, anyone can harm or kill a dog that is running at large and attacking or viciously chasing cattle, goats, horses, sheep, swine, or game.

Under section 49 of the BC Community Charter, local governments may seize and impound some dangerous dogs. The local government may apply to provincial court for an order to destroy the dog. The local government does not need a specific local bylaw to exercise these powers.

Both these BC laws are available at www.bclaws.ca.

3. The Criminal Code

It’s against the Criminal Code to willfully cause unnecessary pain or suffering or injury to any animal or to willfully neglect or fail to provide suitable and adequate food, water, shelter and care for it. If you don’t take reasonable care of your dog, you could face a fine or jail term and a criminal record. Also, if you don’t take reasonable care to avoid having your dog harm others and an attack or injury occurs as a result, you may be charged with criminal negligence. The Criminal Code is available at http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca.

4. If your dog injures someone – common law

If your dog injures someone, that person may sue you under the common law in civil court. If they succeed, you’ll have to pay them for the injuries your dog caused them. If you have insurance, you should check with your insurance agent to find out if your insurance covers these cases. Better yet, if you have a dog that is likely to bite or attack a person, always keep it under control.

With respect to dog bites, a legal concept known as “the doctrine of scienter” applies in BC. This doctrine requires that the following must be proven in court to establish liability following a dog bite or other attack:

  1. ownership or possession and control of the subject dog;
  2. that the subject dog has a history or propensity for violence; and
  3. that the owner was aware of that history or propensity for violence.

However, this doctrine will not necessarily be followed in Court, or may be interpreted in a way you may not expect. If your dog has bitten someone or you have been bitten by a dog and would like to learn more about the common law consequences, contact a personal injury lawyer. The Canadian Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral Service can help you obtain an initial consultation with one and can be reached at 1.800.663.1919.

Fences

Local bylaws often control how high a fence can be, both natural fences, including hedges, and those that are constructed of wood, stone, or other materials. If your neighbour builds a fence higher than the bylaw allows, you can talk to them about it. You can also call the city, which can order the person to obey the law. Absent a complaint, your municipality is unlikely to inspect neighbourhood fences to determine whether they conform with height bylaws.

A fence on a property boundary belongs to both property owners. People often share the cost of a fence, but they don’t have to. Both are responsible to keep it in good shape and they have to get permission from the other one to take it down. The section below called “Trespass” has more on fences.

Trees and hedges

If your neighbour’s tree branches hang over your property, you can cut them, but only up to the property line. You cannot go onto your neighbor's property or destroy the tree. The reverse case is also true.

If a tree on your property somehow damages your neighbour’s property (for example, a branch falls on their roof during a storm), you are not responsible for the damage unless it was caused intentionally or through negligence. Negligence means you did not take reasonable care or you were warned or knew the tree was damaged or diseased and may fall. However, if your tree’s roots go under their property and damage their pipes, lawn, or foundation, you may be responsible under the common law principle of “nuisance”. Whether you will be liable for any damages depends on the facts of the case, but normally the courts will not allow use of a property that causes substantial discomfort to others or damages their property.

Second-Hand smoke

If your neighbour’s smoke comes into your house, as in all these cases, your first course of action should be to speak with the neighbour. If that doesn’t work, what to do depends on the situation. Does the smoke come from a tenant? If so, does the lease prohibit smoking? If not, you still have the right to “quiet enjoyment” of your property, and the smoke may violate that right or be a nuisance under at common law. Consulting a lawyer is the best way to become informed of your rights if you wish to proceed legally against bothersome second-hand smoke.

Water damage

Normally, a neighbour is not responsible for damage caused by the natural conditions of land. For example, if rain runs from a neighbour’s yard onto your property and makes your lawn soggy and possibly kills the grass, your neighbour is not likely responsible. However, if a neighbour changes his or her property and the alteration causes more rainwater to come run onto your property than was previously experienced and causes damage, your neighbour may be financially liable to you. Similarly, your neighbour may be liable where he or she is negligent. Examples of negligence in this case could include leaving a sprinkler running too long that in turn floods your property and causes damage. As negligence is part of common law, speaking to a lawyer about your options would be helpful if you wish to proceed legally.

Trespass

If a neighbour comes onto your property without your permission, they are trespassing. If they refuse to leave when asked, you should call the police. If a neighbour builds a fence or other structure, such as a shed, that encroaches onto your property, this is also a form of trespass. Often the encroachment is unintentional and can be resolved by getting a land survey. If you have spoken with your neighbour about the matter and have had a survey determining that the structure is indeed encroaching, you can bring legal action against your neighbour for trespass. Usually, a court will order the neighbour to remove and relocate the fence or structure so it’s off your property.

What if no bylaw, provincial law, or the Criminal Code deals with your problem?

You may have a problem that these laws do not cover. For example, your neighbour’s property may be producing a terrible smell. In this case, you could try alternative dispute resolution. It may be the best and most cost-effective way to resolve neighbour disputes, because the relationship between you and your neighbour continues and you don’t want to harm or destroy it. For information on alternative dispute resolution, see the website of the Dispute Resolution Office of the Ministry of Attorney General at www.ag.gov.bc.ca/dro.

Or, you may decide to bring legal action against your neighbour. In that case, you should speak to a lawyer promptly because the laws may set a time limit for commencing legal proceedings.


[updated April 2015]

The above was last reviewed for accuracy by Daniel Sorensen, Jack Montpellier and Anna Kurt.


© Copyright 2017, Canadian Bar Association British Columbia Branch. Dial-A-Law is a registered trademark owned by Canadian Bar Association British Columbia Branch, a non-profit membership corporation.


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