Fencing the neighbours

A couple shake hands with another woman at the table.You have a dispute with the neighbours. How can the Dispute Settlement Centre help?

You wake up to discover the side fence has fallen because of your neighbour’s renovation. You ask him to pay for a new fence, but he refuses. Adding to your woes, an overhanging tree is dropping litter into your swimming pool and his puppy barks all night.

This week Victoria Law Foundation had a chat to senior mediator John Brennan at the Dispute Settlement Centre of Victoria to see how they can help.

What is the Dispute Settlement Centre of Victoria?

The Dispute Settlement Centre is a free and confidential service that helps people resolve conflict with others. It covers a wide range of areas including workplace issues, anti-social behaviour, issues in clubs and committees and matters referred by a magistrate. Today we look at the role the centre plays in relation to neighbourhood disputes.

How can the centre help resolve an argument with a neighbour?

The first step is to take a look at the centre’s website for some excellent information that could help you resolve the dispute, senior mediator John Brennan explains.

Alternatively, you can ring the centre for help and they will usually as a first step direct you to helpful information such as their website. ‘From there many people choose to go away and try to resolve their dispute themselves but some also need help right there and then. That's when we would start to assess for mediation,’ Mr Brennan says.

When does the centre assess a case for mediation?

‘The centre will typically begin assessing the situation for mediation once you have had some sort of discussion with the other party, it hasn’t gone well or you haven’t been able to reach agreement,’ he adds.

Cases where people have called the centre for help include when their neighbour has been abusive or tried to start a fight, has been throwing rubbish or other items over the fence or their dog has barked all night. The person complaining may have first called the police, their local council or the Environmental Authority but they haven’t been able to help in that particular case so the person has called the centre, Mr Brennan explains.

What happens next?

First the centre sends the other party a letter inviting them to call in and have a chat. ‘We find that most people who get that letter do call in, and we then have a discussion with them.

‘We have a chat to see whether they want to participate, whether there is an issue to be resolved from their point of view, whether there is scope for negotiation and whether it is safe to put people in a room together,’ Mr Brennan says. If appropriate the centre invites the parties to mediation. It can all happen within a short time frame of about two weeks.

How do you know if mediation is a safe option?

‘You’re never 100 percent sure but the parties will tell you,’ Mr Brennan says. ‘A party will often say: I don’t feel comfortable being in the room with the other person. We then unpack that and ask why it is so. Has the other party threatened you, for example? If we do have serious concerns, then we won’t do mediation. We will refer them on to a different service.’

Often the parties will have had a heated argument and one person has felt intimidated or threatened by the other person. However, this doesn’t necessarily rule out a successful mediation. ‘Sometimes the best place to have a conversation with someone you feel threatened or intimidated by is in a room with two trained professionals. When we explain the process and what we do, often we can work our way through that.’

How does mediation work?

Mediation usually takes a couple of hours. It covers three broad areas: the past, the present and the future. ‘First the parties talk about what happened before so they have the opportunity to get it off their chest. Then they talk about what is at issue now. At a certain point, the mediators will direct the parties to focus on the future, to talk about what will happen once they leave the room. The vast majority of cases don’t need a second mediation,’ he explains. ‘That’s really rare.’

The bulk of the centre’s community work is around issues to do with fences, trees and noise disputes. ‘You learn here very quickly that there are two sides to every dispute and you will often hear from the first party and you will think, gosh that other person must be awful. I can’t imagine what they will be like when they call in. Then they call in and have a perfectly reasonable explanation.

‘From their side of the fence the issues are different and you get to hear stuff you didn’t hear at first instance. So that’s where we play: working out what the third story is, which is more of an impartial middle ground.’

And what about the neighbours with the dispute about the fence, the pool, the tree and the puppy? The parties did reach agreement after mediation. They’re not besties, but at least they can nod and say hello over the new fence.

The Dispute Settlement Centre website is here. You can also call them for more information on 1300 372 888

This page was last updated on September 28, 2017