The devil next door

Standaard

Last month ´the original neighbour from hell´ was sentenced to half a year in prison. The 81-year Dorothy Evans from South Wales kept on breaching court orders and harassing her neighbours and it was a judge who dubbed her to be the devil next door. While this British case made headlines throughout the world, annoying neighbours are a reality in South Africa too.

City people know: sometimes you just have to bite your pillow and hope the usually friendly neighbour turns the volume of his favourite song down quickly. But more serious matters keep armies of South African attorneys busy every day and not a week passes without a few court cases where neighbours are facing each other in lawyers rooms instead of a having a tête-à-tête across the fence.

“About 80 percent of problems with neighbours have to do with loud music´”, Charl van Eetveldt estimates. The 44-year old litigation attorney from Pretoria specialises in dispute resolution of this kind and adds that most other cases deal with borders: “the position of walls or gates for example are often disputed and another special problem is ´ticky creepers´” he explains. These are alien invasive plants that invade neighbouring gardens and crack open tiles.

Unfortunately not everybody calls Van Eetveldt or one of his colleagues when their blood starts to boil. “I am afraid that the majority of people take matters into their own hands” adds Eetveldt, “People throw stones through windows or turn to violence even”. This means the initial disturbance can provoke much more serious offences. Van Eetveldt compares this “neighbour rage” escalation with “road rage’, where neighbours end up ´battling´ over some small irritation.

As far as the law stands, municipal bylaws in South Africa limit the loudness of music after ten o’clock and during weekends. They also for example regulate how many dogs one can have. However, according to Van Eetveldt these rules are hardly enforced. And if the police react to a complaint, the cops may only show up at the scene after the damage is done. Then there is only one thing left to do: phone up an attorney and get serious.

Before risking an expensive case it is essential to send one or more letters to the neighbour with the complaint to give them a reasonable chance to change their behaviour. If nothing happens: you can sue them. “In many cases it is the best to start proceedings. That mostly leads to mediation and settlement. The accused party does not want to risk loosing, and paying for, a court case. Sometimes the ´victims´ take their loss and move away” explains Van Eetveldt.

Cases that eventually go to court may be the tip of the iceberg, but they keep the judges busy. In countries like Germany laws describe in detail what is allowed and what not. In the South African system, which looks a lot like the British one, it is for the judges to decide what is reasonable. They take the nature of neighbourhood into account too. In a townhouse you will have to tolerate more than in a quiet area. “You cannot complain when somebody gets excited over the rugby or when a dog barks, but if the dog barks for hours or there is constant shouting, you can. You are entitled to your peace, within reason”, says Van Eetveldt.

Court orders can go from a ban on loud music, to removal of ´problem dogs´, to the instalment of a monitoring system. Someone who keeps on playing loud music or who keeps on harassing his neighbours can be found guilty of contempt of court. “They then risk a fine or even prison”, concludes Van Eetveldt, “Look what happened in Wales”.

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