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Victorian law reform: Better laws make better neighbours

Victorian law reform: Better laws make better neighbours

By VLRC

Dispute Resolution 

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The VLRC’s latest report aims to reduce stress in your neighbourhood.

Snapshot
  • The VLRC’s “Neighbourhood Tree Disputes Report” was tabled in parliament on 27 November 2019.
  • It makes 63 recommendations.
  • The key recommendation is for the introduction of a Neighbourhood Tree Disputes Act.

In his poem Mending Wall, Robert Frost repeated the old New England saying, “Good fences make good neighbours”, and maybe that’s true (though the poet had his doubts). Even so, once the fence is up and solid, all kinds of issues can destabilise good neighbourly relations. For many property owners it’s the neighbour’s trees. 

A tree respects neither fences nor property lines; it grows where it wills. Its roots undermine neighbours’ foundations, push up their paving stones and strangle their pipes; its branches encroach and loom; its leaves clog their gutters; and its fruit drops and rots over their side of the fence. Even the most genial of neighbours can find themselves in conflict over delinquent trees. 

On 27 November, the Victorian Law Reform Commission’s (VLRC) “Neighbourhood Tree Disputes Report” was tabled in Parliament, making 63 recommendations to bring greater clarity to the laws and procedures governing such disputes. The report’s key recommendation is for the introduction of a Neighbourhood Tree Disputes Act to assist neighbours to resolve their disputes quickly, affordably and effectively. The VLRC further recommended that the Act be managed by VCAT, whose processes are suitably informal, flexible, accessible and efficient.

On the face of it, tree disputes between neighbours seem such trivial matters. But after only a brief preliminary investigation, the VLRC saw how widespread and serious the issue was. From the Dispute Settlement Centre of Victoria, which offers a free dispute resolution service for neighbours, came the statistic that neighbourhood tree issues were its third most common inquiry. And, indeed, on its website’s home page, basic advice on tree disputes figures prominently. It informed the VLRC that existing common law remedies were confusing and hard to access. 

This is a common view. Among concerned parties – property owners, councils, government agencies, lawyers and arborists – few had good things to say about the current laws and procedures. We all want to be good neighbours, but the cumbersome laws and dispute resolution mechanisms in Victoria almost seem designed to strain our good will. 

All this community dissatisfaction made tree disputes a perfect area for one of the VLRC’s community law reform projects. Distinct from references given to the VLRC by the Attorney-General, these projects are initiated by the VLRC itself under the Victorian Law Reform Commission Act 2000 (Vic), which gives it the power to examine and make recommendations to the Attorney-General on issues that are of significant community concern but limited in size and scope. Neighbourhood tree disputes ticked all the boxes: it’s a minor issue that hardly feels minor for those entangled in it, affecting the quality of life of a large number of Victorians. Reforming this small area would undoubtedly bring significant benefits to the community. So, in June 2017, the VLRC initiated its inquiry. 

All the VLRC’s inquiries involve extensive consultation with relevant individuals and groups, but community law reform projects – as the name suggests – take particular care to solicit as many different opinions and perspectives from the community as possible. In order to guide public submissions, a consultation paper published in December 2017 laid out the current law and procedures, identifying the core issues and sticking points. From this, 38 submissions were received from a broad range of interested parties, and were considered alongside 16 formal and a large number of informal consultations with property-owners, arborists, lawyers, academics, local councils, government agencies and departments. The VLRC also conducted an online survey and looked carefully at how other states dealt with such disputes. All the evidence only reinforced the initial impression that the laws and processes governing neighbourhood trees were in need of reform.

Most of us count the presence of trees in our yards as one of the everyday delights of modern life. But, as the VLRC’s report confirms, we often don’t feel the same about the trees of our neighbours. Rather, theirs may seem to us to be parasites and invaders, destructive and intrusive. In recommending ways to clarify the laws and dispute resolution mechanisms, the VLRC hopes to bring a little more peace to the neighbourhood. Good fences might not make good neighbours, but perhaps better laws will. 

The “Neighbourhood Trees Disputes Report” is available from the VLRC website: www.lawreform.vic.gov.au


This column was provided by the VLRC. For further information ph 8608 7800 or see www.lawreform.vic.gov.au


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