Neighbours will generally be required to contribute equally to the cost of building dividing fences and home owners will have to seek agreement from their neighbours prior to building such a fence even where they don’t want them to share in the costs of building it under an overhaul of property fencing laws in Victoria.

Introduced into Parliament last week, the new laws are designed to establish clear rules and procedures for neighbours to follow when negotiating the type and location of boundary fences and make it easier to locate absentee neighbours, resolve disputes and recover contributions from neighbours.

Under the new laws, neighbours will generally be required to contribute equally to the costs of construction for a ‘sufficient’ dividing fence (determined by the existence or otherwise of an existing fence, the type of fence usual in the neighbourhood and the purpose for which neighbours are using their land), with any owners wanting a more expensive fence than that considered to be sufficient being required to meet extra costs.

The laws will also:

  • Require owners to seek agreement from their neighbour before building a fence – even if they don’t want the neighbour to share the cost
  • Authorise local councils to provide the name and address of an absentee owner to enable neighbours to serve fencing notices
  • Allow home owners to proceed with a fence and obtain a court order for their neighbour’s share of the costs in the event the neighbour does not respond to a fencing notice
  • Set out clear rules in areas such as carrying out and paying for urgent fencing works, the side of the fence on which framing should be built and performing a boundary survey where neighbours cannot agree where common boundaries are located.

According to the new law, where neighbours cannot agree formally about a new or replacement fence, a neighbour will be able to give a specified notice to the other neighbour setting out details of a proposed fence type and location, estimated cost and proposed cost-sharing basis.

If the neighbours then can’t reach agreement, either owner will be able seek an order from the Magistrates’ Court specifying what fence should be built and how the costs should be shared.

Attorney-General Robert Clark says the Dispute Settlement Centre of Victoria received no fewer than 6,611 inquires revolving around residential fencing disputes in 2012/13 – the greatest number of calls to the centre of any dispute type.

Whilst most disputes are resolved peacefully, some become nasty and even violent.

A case study featured on the Dispute Settlement Centres website, for example, described how two previously friendly couples became hostile and ceased speaking to each other after a scenario whereby one of the couples added an extension to three quarters of the fence turned into a dispute involving the spreading of nasty rumours – a situation requiring more than three  hours of mediation to resolve.

Media reports in recent years in the UK, meanwhile, have recorded cases of a simple dispute over the positioning of the fence separating two nineteenth century cottages which morphed into a situation whereby a 67 year old man cut his neighbour’s face and hand with a small tool knife in 2008 and of another couple being wiped out financially after being forced to sell their house to pay for legal bills running into the hundreds of thousands of pounds as a result of a dispute which saw them rip down their neighbours fence which went all the way to the High Court.

“Unfortunately, fencing disputes have been common in Victoria and complaints about neighbourhood fencing disputes are increasing” Clark says.

“This Bill seeks to reverse the trend by providing a clearer framework for settling fencing arrangements privately and, if disputes arise, resolving them quickly.”

The new laws follow public consultation based on a discussion paper released last year and largely reflect recommendations of an earlier Parliamentary Law Reform Committee in 1998.