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Boundaries ownership and disputes

8 February 2018

Queries about boundaries on school sites generally only come to light when there is a problem. It might be that a boundary feature has fallen into disrepair; a ditch is flooding or full of rubbish; the hedge between the school and a highway (public footpath or road) is overgrown; or a third party seems to be encroaching. It is at that point schools generally want to know whose responsibility it is to rectify the problem.

Some boundary queries are more easily resolved than others due to established legal principles. For those to which the principles do not apply, then establishing ownership of the boundary can be difficult and costly.

Who is responsible for the boundary?

Where a school boundary is adjacent to a highway, whether that is a road or a public footpath, there is a general presumption that the land extends to the middle of the highway. This means the boundary feature abutting the road or footpath will belong to, and be the responsibility of, the school.

Where a school boundary is adjacent to a ditch and bank, or ditch and hedge, then it should be possible to establish ownership under established legal principles based on where these features are. Generally, it is presumed that the ditch would have been dug after the boundary was drawn - with the earth being thrown on the owner’s land and the hedge being planted on the top of the bank that had been created. So, if a hedge or bank is on the school’s side of a ditch, it is likely that both the hedge and the ditch belong to, and are the responsibility of, the school.

When you might need legal advice

The more difficult queries relating to boundaries are those where these general legal principles cannot be applied - for example where there is a wall or fence dividing the school site and the neighbouring land. Generally these queries require legal advice as the land registration documents rarely clarify ownership. It is therefore necessary to look beyond this document and to the historic title deeds if they are available. Custom and practice also plays a part in determining ongoing responsibility - the general principle being that a party that has previously accepted responsibility will continue to remain responsible.

Dispute resolution

If ownership is not clear from the historic title deeds, or no information as to custom and practice is available, then an application to the Land Registry to determine the exact location of the boundary could be made. Or, if a dispute has arisen which cannot be resolved between the parties then it may have to be referred to the court. Neither of these options is likely to be attractive to a school with a limited budget and therefore a pragmatic approach might be preferable and ultimately less costly.

Where ownership of a boundary cannot be established without reference to either the Land Registry or the court, then the first step in trying to reach a resolution is to speak to the neighbouring owner(s) to try to agree a way forward. If an agreement cannot be reached then the school will have to choose between seeking a formal resolution and taking responsibility for the boundary.

In summary

Ultimately the school will need to have due regard to its responsibilities regarding the safety of the site, school buildings and students and, where there is no clear answer to who has responsibility, then no doubt these issues will feature heavily in the decision that the school makes as to whether or not to accept responsibility.

Our team has extensive experience in relation to all types of property matters relating to schools, including disposals and acquisitions, leases, telecoms and substations, solar panels, boundary disputes, rights of way, access issues. Please feel free to contact us if you need any advice or assistance.

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The content on this page is provided for the purposes of general interest and information. It contains only brief summaries of aspects of the subject matter and does not provide comprehensive statements of the law. It does not constitute legal advice and does not provide a substitute for it.

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