That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to address neighbour disputes concerning vegetation that causes a nuisance including the obstruction of sunlight; to provide for mediation of neighbour disputes and formal adjudication if necessary by adjudication officers appointed by local authorities; to provide for the appeal and enforcement of decisions made by adjudication officers; and to provide for related matters.
Some might scoff at this legislation or the idea of having legislation to deal with overhanging trees. It might not be the most pressing need in our society but for many people it is a constant irritant that neighbours' bushes or trees have grown wild, reaching a height that affects sunlight or enjoyment of space, but they have no means of recourse unless they wish to go through the courts. As we know, that is an expensive prospect for most people.
The Oireachtas Library and Research Service did some work for me on this and it indicates that in Ireland there is no specific legislation governing overhanging branches or the height of trees and hedges in privately owned gardens. Our neighbours in England have such legislation, strangely enough, with an anti-social behaviour Act. It produced regulations for the height of hedges in 2005. As I stated, some may scoff at this but anybody who has dealt with neighbours and constituents on an ongoing basis would be aware that disputes like this can happen between neighbours. Some of those disputes escalate when the neighbours are dismissive or even hostile to requests for trees to be lopped or pruned. It may become all-consuming and a battle between neighbours, sometimes leading to legal and physical confrontation.
My intention with this Bill is to provide through the local authority a mediation system so somebody can report to the local authority and it can initiate a mediation process to try to ensure the matter can be dealt with. The topic was raised in the last Dáil in the petitions committee, with a number of cases coming before that committee. We asked the Minister and the Department at the time if the intention was to address the matter as there was no recourse in law and we were referred at that stage to a mediation Bill now making its way through the Houses. It is a welcome addition and I hope that when it becomes an Act it will address these disputes if people go to a solicitor. We are trying to capture what can be done before people have to go to any legal officer or the courts in the first instance.
Only last Friday I spoke with an elderly couple who came into the office and had been asked by a neighbour to prune a tree they own. They had agreed to do it and engaged a tree surgeon to do the work. Lo and behold, the clearly disgruntled neighbour came in with a chainsaw and cut the tree down to its roots. The case has escalated into a case of trespass and criminal damage. This happens on occasion and people would be aware of it. A simple Bill like this would help. In preparing the Bill I used the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Adviser, which referred me to draftsmen, including Ms Susan Gunn, Mr. David Dunne and Mr. David Hegarty, who helped in preparing this legislation. We went through the existing legislation to see if it could be amended and legislation from abroad, all with the intention to formulate a method to ensure these disputes could be solved or mediated, or where mediation fails, there would still be recourse to the courts. The local authorities should, through its officers, be able to make a decision on whether action is required and carry it out.
I recommend this legislation and I hope there will be a chance on Second Stage to elaborate on it. I am keen for it to get to Committee Stage so all the Deputies in the House who have come across such cases of dispute can give their experiences and address the problems. The idea is for us to produce laws to deal with particular problems in our society.
This issue does not affect everyone, but when it does affect someone, it can be all-consuming. It can prevent people enjoying their gardens and properties as they are supposed to, and as is set out in law.