Is a dispute over an apple tree worth hundreds of thousands in legal fees?
In 2014 a dispute began between Antoinette Williams and Barbara Pilcher regarding fruit falling from Mrs Williams’ Bramley apple tree. Mrs Williams refused to cut the tree back leaving hundreds of apples to fall on Mrs Pilcher’s lawn every season. In 2018, Mrs Pilcher was hospitalised from multiple wasp stings, which were attracted to the apples. The dispute lasted for seven long years and ended up in court.
After a five-day trial at the Central London County Court, the court awarded Mrs Pilcher £12,000 for the harassment she suffered. Mrs Williams was ordered to pay costs estimated at between £135,000 and £180,000 towards Mrs Pilcher’s lawyers’ fees, on top of her own legal bills of more than £100,000.
Disputes about overhanging trees are common and it is good to seek legal advice early. Generally, you can cut overhanging branches back to the boundary line (unless they are protected or in a conservation area) but this does not extend to reducing the height of a hedge / tree. The cutting back must not be so severe that it makes the trees unstable or cause them to die and the severed branches / hedgerow must be returned to the owner to avoid claims of conversion or theft. It is also important to check that there are no nesting birds to avoid infringement of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
This case shows how legal costs can escalate, leaving the unsuccessful party to bear their own costs and pay those of the successful party. Surely no disagreement with a neighbour is worth the risk of paying hundreds of thousands in legal fees. As much as possible should be done at early stage to explore a resolution between the parties.