Learn your legal rights and options if you have a problem with a neighbour. This information covers problems involving noise, untidiness, dogs, fences, trees, second-hand smoke, water damage, and trespassing.
Understand your legal rights
Many of us have had our peace and quiet disturbed by squealing tires, loud stereos, barking dogs, or noisy equipment. What can you do to stop it? First, try talking to the person causing the noise. They may not realize how irritating it is.
If that doesn’t work, call your city or town hall and ask if there is a noise bylaw. If there is one, talk to the person who enforces it. For example, in Vancouver, you would call the environmental health officers. Each municipality’s noise bylaw is different, but most are broad. In Vancouver and many other municipalities, the bylaw covers noise from animals including dogs and birds, heavy duty equipment, lawnmowers, loud parties, stereos, and many other things. Usually, the municipality’s enforcement officer will try to solve the problem informally. If they can’t, they may prosecute the person in court for violating the bylaw.
Causing a disturbance
If the noise is on a weekend or at night and city hall is closed, you can call the police. If a person is screaming, shouting, swearing, or singing to the point they are creating a nuisance for others, they may be causing a disturbance — an offence under the Criminal Code. In all these cases, call the police and report it.
Bringing a lawsuit
You can also sue the person causing the noise. You could sue for damages for nuisance or negligence, or ask the court to order the person to stop the noise. But this can be a long, expensive, and stressful process, and there’s no guarantee you will win. There may be cases without a solution. For example, a noise or odour may be permitted by zoning or custom (in an industrial or agricultural area). And a court may decide that the noise or odour isn’t significant enough to be a nuisance.
Most municipalities have bylaws to control garbage, junk, overgrown yards, or abandoned vehicles. For example, in Vancouver, every property owner must keep their property in neat and tidy condition, consistent with a reasonable standard of maintenance common in the neighbourhood. In these cases, it is best to speak with a neighbour if possible. If this fails or is impossible, your next step is the local government. Explain your situation to the person who enforces bylaws. They may investigate and if your complaint is valid, order the owner to clean up the property. If the owner doesn’t, the municipality can clean it up at the owner’s expense.
The responsibilities of dog ownership are described in four places: local bylaws, provincial laws, the Criminal Code, and the common law.
Local bylaws cover licensing and may prohibit dogs from being in certain places. You can find a copy of local bylaws at your public library or on your municipality’s website. On the website CivicInfo, you can search across BC local government websites to find local bylaws.
Many local governments have passed bylaws to prohibit dogs running loose. In Vancouver, for example, dogs cannot be on the street or in a public place unless they’re on a leash not more than eight feet long (two and a half meters) — except in off-leash parks. As well, female dogs must be kept indoors when they’re in heat.
The Vancouver animal control bylaw also requires “aggressive” dogs — those with a known tendency to attack or bite, or dogs that have bitten another domestic animal or person without provocation — to be muzzled or kept indoors or in a pen. The city may seize and impound (for up to three weeks) a dog that has bitten someone. A dog found running loose, or unlicensed, will be taken to the pound and, if it isn’t claimed within three days, it may be put up for sale or destroyed. The owner could also be charged fees to cover the cost of impounding the dog, keeping it at the pound, and any veterinary services it needs. The owner may be fined for violating the bylaw.
Health bylaws in Vancouver and elsewhere prohibit dogs in restaurants and other places where food is kept or handled. These bylaws don’t apply to private homes, nor do they prohibit “seeing-eye” or other types of service dogs from entering restaurants or other public establishments.
Vancouver has a bylaw requiring a dog owner to pick up their dog’s excrement on property that is not their own. Failure to do so can result in a fine of up to $2,000. This law does not apply to working “seeing-eye” dogs or service dogs.
Vancouver’s animal control bylaw also regulates the noise of barking or howling dogs. For example, if your neighbour has a dog whose barking unreasonably disturbs the peace and quiet of the neighbourhood, they could be fined up to $2,000. Other local governments also regulate dog barking in their noise-control bylaws.
The BC Livestock Act protects farm animals from attacks by dogs. For example, anyone can harm or kill a dog that is running at large and attacking or viciously pursuing livestock. Livestock includes cattle, goats, horses, sheep, swine, or game.
Under the BC Community Charter, local governments may seize and impound some dangerous dogs. The local government may apply to court for an order to destroy the dog. The local government does not need a specific local bylaw to exercise these powers.
The Criminal Code
It’s against the Criminal Code to willfully cause unnecessary pain or suffering or injury to any animal or to willfully neglect or fail to provide suitable and adequate food, water, shelter, and care for it. If someone doesn’t take reasonable care of their dog, they could face a fine or jail term and a criminal record. Also, if they don’t take reasonable care to prevent their dog from harming others, and an attack or injury occurs as a result, they may be charged with criminal negligence.
Under the common law
If someone’s dog injures a person, the injured person may sue the dog owner under the common law in civil court. If they succeed, the dog owner has to pay damages for the injuries the dog caused.
A legal concept known as “the doctrine of scienter” applies to dog bites in BC. This doctrine requires the following things to be proven in court for a dog owner to be liable for a dog bite or other attack:
- the person owns and controls the dog,
- the dog has a history or tendency for violence, and
- the owner knew of that history or tendency for violence.
But the court may not follow this doctrine. Or it may apply it in a way that is unexpected. If a dog bites you and you want to know your options, contact a personal injury lawyer. The Lawyer Referral Service can refer you to a lawyer for a free half-hour legal consultation. Call 1-800-663-1919.
Local bylaws often control how high a fence can be, both natural fences, including hedges, and those built of wood, stone, or other materials. If your neighbour builds a fence higher than the bylaw allows, you can talk to them about it. You can also call the city, which can order the person to obey the law. Without a complaint, your municipality is unlikely to inspect neighbourhood fences to see if they comply with height bylaws.
A fence on a property boundary belongs to both property owners. People often share the cost of a fence, but they don’t have to. Both are responsible to keep it in good shape and they must get permission from the other one to take it down. The section below on “trespass” has more on fences.
If your neighbour’s tree branches hang over your property, you can cut them, but only up to the property line. You cannot go onto your neighbor’s property or destroy the tree. The reverse case is also true.
If a tree on your property somehow damages your neighbour’s property (for example, a branch falls on their roof during a storm), you are not responsible for the damage unless it was caused intentionally or through negligence. Negligence means you did not take reasonable care or you were warned or knew the tree was damaged or diseased and may fall. But if your tree’s roots go under their property and damage their pipes, lawn, or foundation, you may be responsible under the common law principle of “nuisance”. Whether you will be liable for any damages depends on the facts of the case, but normally the courts will not allow use of a property that causes substantial discomfort to others or damages their property.
If your neighbour’s smoke comes into your house, you should first speak with the neighbour. If that doesn’t work, what to do depends on the situation. Does the smoke come from a tenant? If so, does the lease prohibit smoking? If not, you still have the right to “quiet enjoyment” of your property, and the smoke may violate that right or be a nuisance under common law. You can speak to a lawyer if you want to sue because of second-hand smoke.
Normally, a neighbour is not responsible for damage caused by the natural conditions of land. For example, if rain runs from a neighbour’s yard onto your property and makes your lawn soggy and kills the grass, your neighbour is not likely responsible. But if a neighbour changes their property and the change causes more rainwater to run onto your property than before and causes damage, your neighbour may be financially liable to you. Similarly, your neighbour may be liable if they are negligent. An example of negligence could include leaving a sprinkler running too long, so that it flooded your property and caused damage.
If a neighbour comes onto your property without your permission, they are trespassing. If they refuse to leave when asked, you can call the police.
If a neighbour builds a fence or other structure, such as a shed, that encroaches on (goes onto) your property, this is also a form of trespass. Often the encroachment is unintentional and can be resolved by getting a land survey. If you have spoken with your neighbour about the matter and have had a survey showing that the structure is encroaching, you can sue your neighbour for trespass. A court can order the neighbour to remove and relocate the fence or structure so it’s off your property.
If you are unable to resolve the matter directly with your neighbour, you could consider mediation. This involves you and your neighbour meeting with a mediator, who works to help you reach an agreement. Mediation is much less expensive and quicker than taking legal action, and can help preserve a good neighbourly relationship.
This information applies to British Columbia, Canada
Reviewed in October 2017
Time to read: 9 minutes