‘The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.’—William Blake, The Letters (1799).
Neighbour proximity brings with it commendable values and benefits: existence of community; mutual help and assistance; sharing of resources; and safety by the defeat of isolation. Trees bring with them commendable values and benefits also: cooling and shading; biodiversity; birdlife; cover and privacy; and aesthetics. The quantifiable, shared, health and amenity benefits of living in leafy environments mean that trees and the ‘urban forest’ are valued and protected.
And yet neighbour proximity and trees are not always a happy meld. In an increasingly urbanised environment, people’s decisions about their land and the trees on it can have significant effects on their neighbours’ homes and lives. Neighbour tree disputes are the third largest category of dispute that comes before the Dispute Settlement Centre of Victoria.
Many people are involved in disputes about trees each year, including disputes about encroaching roots and branches and about trees which cause damage or harm. The methods for resolving such disputes—ranging from informal negotiation to litigation—can be unclear and unnecessarily confusing. A number of Australian states have recently enacted specific legislation to provide processes for resolution, and to identify more clearly parties’ rights and responsibilities.
The Victorian Law Reform Commission is examining the current operation of the relevant laws and processes in Victoria governing neighbourhood tree disputes. The inquiry forms part of the Commission’s community law reform program, which enables members of the community to contribute their ideas on how to improve Victorian law, and which is a valuable and important part of the Commission’s functions. In order to contain the size of the inquiry as required by the Victorian Law Reform Commission Act 2000 section 5(1)(b), the inquiry does not consider disputes about light or views, important though they are to those affected, nor does it consider disputes concerning trees situated on public land. The Commission’s priority is upon effective and efficient resolution of disputes between neighbours about trees on neighbouring private land that cause interference, damage or harm.
The Commission has undertaken this inquiry following suggestions from community members, a number of which were based on their own experience of trying to resolve a neighbourhood tree dispute.
The Commission will now consider whether the current law and processes, as well as available information and support, are effective and, if not, what type of legal regime should take their place.
I encourage anyone with an interest in the issues discussed in this paper to make a submission to the Commission by 28 February 2018. Your submissions will be taken into account in the formulation of recommendations by the Commission to government as to reform of the law.
The Hon. P. D. Cummins AM
Victorian Law Reform Commission