One of the most common disputes among UK property owners is the definition of the boundary wall surrounding the property. Knowing whether the ownership of land extends to the exterior face of the boundary or the interior, and who is responsible for the repair and maintenance of the wall, is information that should be included in the conveyancing paperwork so that all parties know their legal obligations, although that doesn't prevent anyone from disputing the legalities.
The significance of a boundary wall appears first to have been recognised during the medieval period. A boundary wall is described in Keir Sothcott's thesis "Crime, Fear of Crime and Social Order in a Post-War British New Town" as having been a contributory element in the advance of social order. Establishing the extent of a piece of land conferred rights, privacy and legal protection, as evidence for example by the listing of tenanted land in the Domesday Book of the 11th century. Often boundary walls were the outside walls of a fortified town with a moat outside and a castle within the walls, providing protection to the entire community.
The definition of a boundary wall, as set out in Land Registry Practice Guide 40 of October 2005, is that it is the structure that surrounds the total square footage of the property including land. The wall might be a garden wall, the outside fence of a plot of land, or any structure that encloses the parcel of land in the sale. However, the physical boundary is not the same as the legal boundary, which is how legal disputes arise.
In defining boundary law, both Scottish and English law agree that there is no legal definition of a precise boundary line. A boundary wall may give rise to disputes as to exactly how much of the thickness of the wall is included in a title deed, and whether or not the boundary line runs along the middle of the wall, or along one side or the other. In some title cases, the legal boundary may not be part of a wall and may have to be agreed with the Land Registry before Title can be assigned to a property owner.
The Party Wall etc. Act, 1996
For new builds, the Party Wall Act of 1996 makes the definition of a boundary wall very easy. The wall has to be set within the property's legal boundary, even though its foundations may extend into the neighbouring land. The problems arise with boundary walls for which there are no previous legal precedents set out in the title deeds, or where the boundary wall straddles both sides of a boundary line.