Careless pruning costs lives

The fast-growing Leyland Cypress (leylandi) hedge has become such a problem that the British government has tabled the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill which incorporates legislation to tackle nuisance hedges. Hedgeline exists as a national lobby and support group for "victims of high hedges... and hedge bullying".

The following story illustrates the malignant absurdity of neighbours feuding. Earlier this year George Wilson shot dead his neighbour Robert Dickenson after finding his hedge had been cut back severely. This tragedy was compounded when George Wilson hanged himself while in custody after being charged with murder.

Central to the problem of high hedges is that English common law does not recognize a right to light. At best one has to demonstrate that there has been such a diminution of light in one's building that a case of nuisance has arisen. In South African law, nuisance as an annoyance affects both personality and patrimonial rights.

Personality rights include examples of personal discomfort or inconvenience, while proprietary rights are affected if such personal discomfort or inconvenience prevents the owner from actually using and enjoying the use of his land. In deciding whether the use of land is natural and normal the prevailing notions of a community have to be looked at.

Nuisance also shares an affinity with the doctrine of abuse of rights when the use of the land is abnormal or unnatural. The test of this will depend on whether the landowners conduct is objectively reasonable under the circumstances. A number of factors are taken into account in this inquiry. These include:

  • The gravity of harm or potential harm to the neighbour,
  • The nature of the neighbourhood,
  • The personality of the plaintiff,
  • The motive of the perpetrator, and
  • The utility of the activity to the general public.
As a grim aside to the story, the new legislation would have not helped the dead neighbours - the hedge was only 30 centimetres high to start with.

Hedgeline website

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