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)
This report responds to a number of suggestions from the community about an urgent need to improve the law to help neighbours resolve their disputes about trees. The inquiry was initiated by the Commission as part of its community law reform program.
Neighbourhood tree disputes affect many people in the Victorian community and may become more common as our population expands and our gardens get smaller. Similarly, as our communities place increasing importance on the urban forest, and become more aware of climate change, there may be more objections about the removal of vegetation in our neighbourhoods.
Tree disputes are often about overhanging branches, encroaching roots, leaf litter, the presence of large trees close to boundary lines, and the loss of vegetation. Because of the proximity of neighbours and the tendency of these disputes to harm neighbour relations, it is important to resolve them quickly. Often this does not occur because the current methods for resolving tree disputes are unclear and confusing. As a result, disputes may remain unresolved and neighbourly relations may be strained. In exceptional cases, criminal actions may occur.
It is hoped that the recommendations made in this report will bring greater clarity to the law governing the resolution of neighbourhood tree disputes in Victoria.
The key recommendation is for the introduction of a Neighbourhood Tree Disputes Act that will assist people to resolve their disputes quickly, affordably and effectively. Management of the new Act should be given to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT). VCAT’s processes are informal, flexible and widely accessible, and its matters are concluded quickly.
I wish to thank the many people who provided submissions, met with the Commission, completed the online survey and otherwise assisted in this inquiry. Your valuable contributions have helped the Commission formulate its recommendations and we are grateful for your time and attention to the issues.
This inquiry was led by the Hon. Philip Cummins AM, Chair of the Commission, until his passing in February 2019. The report’s delivery has been consequently delayed. Philip was passionate about involving the community in law reform and believed that the Commission’s community law reform function was fundamental to its role. He enjoyed engaging with people about how the law could be improved and how it could keep pace with community ideas and expectations. Philip approached this inquiry with great enthusiasm and guided the direction of the final report.
I thank the Commissioners who comprised the Division that worked on this Inquiry: Liana Buchanan, Dr Ian Hardingham QC, Alison O’Brien PSM, Professor Bernadette McSherry and Gemma Varley PSM. They have contributed as a group to the Commission’s thinking about the practical problems facing the community and the recommendations for change. I particularly thank Gemma Varley who gave her time generously and provided additional expert guidance and input.
The production of this report has been a lengthy and complex undertaking, involving consideration of many areas of law. I am grateful to the research and policy team who have worked tirelessly to produce high quality work. Emma Cashen completed the Commission’s consultations and led the production of the report with expertise and commitment. I thank Hana Shahkhan and Anna Woods for their dedication to this project. Their research, writing and analytical skills were invaluable.
My thanks to Natalie Lilford, Community Law Reform Manager, who led the development of the consultation paper and conducted early consultations that shaped the direction of this report before she commenced parental leave. Andrea Lane provided invaluable research assistance in the final stages. Nick Gadd expertly guided the editing and production process. Gemma Walsh has provided invaluable research and library resource support. Finally, my thanks to the CEO, Merrin Mason, for her assistance and guidance over the course of this inquiry and Lindy Smith, Acting CEO, in the final stages.
I commend this report to you.
Bruce Gardner PSM
Victorian Law Reform Commission